Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sorry, Emily, Madison, Jacob, Michael and Ethan

Zachary Taylor was born 225 years ago on Nov. 24 in Virginia. I'm guessing that no child has been named after him, specifically, in the past 100 years. Nevertheless, the Virginia Historical Society is giving free admission to anyone named Zachary or Taylor between now and Jan. 3, 2010, during their mini-exhibition of documents and images related to the nation's 12th president.

So who will the VHS see taking advantage of this crr-aaazy offer? Statistics say it will be 17-year-old boys and 13-year-old girls.

According to, Zachary was among the top 20 most popular boys' names from 1992-2002. In Virginia, it reached its peak of popularity, #9, in 1993.

Taylor has been among the top 1000 boys' names since at least 1880, when the SSA online records start. It peaked nationally at #51 in 1993.

Interestingly (if you're a nerd, I guess), Taylor as a girls' name didn't hit the top 1000 until 1979, but by 1993 had reached the top 10, where it stayed until 2000. In Virginia, it reached the zenith of #3 in 1996.

The thing is, people under age 18 never have to pay admission to the VHS anyway, so the museum isn't taking any big risks with this offer, while getting free and feel-good publicity at the same time.

Admission to the VHS is cheap anyway ($3-5 and free on Sundays), and it's an excellent under-appreciated museum, so visit no matter what your name is. I plan to get over there to see the John Brown exhibit soon.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Richmond Symphony Masterworks: Beethoven, Sheng, Franck

My review of Richmond Symphony's most recent Masterworks concert ran in Monday's Times-Dispatch.

In discussing "Nanking! Nanking!" the phrase I use, "pounding the audience into shock," is not an exaggeration. The piece ends with about eight (I forgot to count) fortissimo repeated notes that made the word "rape" spring to my mind. (I later realized that the title "The Rape of Nanking" had been in my subconcious, though I've never read the book.)

I couldn't believe that was how the piece ended, and I suspect others in the audience had the same reaction. There was a pause of several seconds, and it wasn't until Fagen turned to Wei to shake his hand that applause began.

It's very hard to explain, especially in a written review that doesn't permit much, if any, first-person voice, the state of not liking a piece but being glad to have heard it. My not liking it was for two reasons, as was my gladness for hearing it.

I didn't like it because it didn't have anything especially new to add to the catalogue of music-that-imitates-violence, and because I'd just rather listen music that's more subtle, if not traditionally melodic.

I was glad to hear it for the reasons I mentioned in the article, and because, more specifically, it did have some very interesting aural pairings of the pipa with other sections and soloists the orchestra-- the pipa-contrabassoon duets, for example.

I still haven't answered the question, "Why the pipa?" Sheng writes that the solo instrument in "Nanking! Nanking!" has the role of victim, witness and survivor. Maybe giving this usually delicate-sounding instrument an often-violent line to play says something about the human capacity to adapt, to react, to act both basely and nobly, and about music's ability to reflect all aspects of our humanity.

Before beginning the piece, Fagen led three excerpts from "Nanking! Nanking!" with very brief remarks before each. I though the chosen bits were a little long, but I suppose that was necessary.

Fagen did an excellent job conducting the whole program, clearly composed and authoritative. However, the Egmont didn't have as much brightness to it as I thought it should. Is "new hall" still an excuse after 3 months? I don't know, not knowing what can be physically done to sharpen the sound and get rid of (or temper) excess boom and resonance.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"This Is How It Goes" Again

On the radio this morning, I heard yet another reviewer use the word "uncomfortable" to describe "This Is How It Goes."

Maybe this is the best reason you should go see the play. If something's uncomfortable, shouldn't it be fixed or changed? If a chair was uncomfortable, we'd examine it to see why, and then we'd do something about it. Why would we do anything less for our response to our social/emotional/political world?

("This Is How It Goes" isn't just about race--see yesterday's post-- but this topic is probably the source of most of whatever squirming goes on.)

I wonder if the "white" people in the audiences generally feel any more uncomfortable than "black" people and other identified minorities might feel every day in the face of the benign ignorance of a majority.

Benign Ignorance: A Story.
I play pick-up soccer on various second-rate fields around the city. Once I was having a great game, then we switched sides at half time and I realized I had been running downhill the whole first half.

Why am I uncomfortable with _________? [Fill in the blank with just about any scene from the play.] That's a personal question., but for god's sake, ask it!!

Busy as Bees

Apropos to my previous musings, this article in the Omaha Herald discusses the notion that conductors bring musical benefit to their orchestras by conducting more than one orchestra and/or taking many guest conductor jobs--a sort of cross-pollination effect.

Makes sense. But do the benefits outweigh the benefit that might be gained by having a conductor who identifies so strongly with a single orchestra that he or she is around town enough to truly represent the orchestra in the community? The answer, of course, will vary from place to place.

As much as I hate to say it, I doubt that orchestras will retain and build audiences in the 21st century on the strength of their musicality alone. It will also be their education programs, their advertising approaches, their special events or concerts... their collective "personality" as perceived by their city/audience. A conductor needs to be in one place at least enough to really "get" how the orchestral organization as a whole is working on this.

(Thanks, Clarke Bustard at Letter V for the link.)

Firehouse Theatre: "This Is How It Goes" on a dark and stormy night

Today I got my email update from Firehouse Theatre and halfway down, after the blurbs, there was a note that tonight would be a special, rainy-night pay-what-you-will ticket deal for "This Is How It Goes."

All right! I took them up on it, since this was exactly the motivation I needed to go see a play I kind of wanted to see, but wasn't dying to attend. (I payed twice what I paid for a cup of coffee (bottomless) and a piece of chocolate pecan pie at Garnett's this afternoon. So today was a high-flyin' kind of day for me, and if you have any spare freelance writing jobs or substitute teaching gigs for me, please let me know.)

I refuse to discuss what this play is about. That's an exercise in reductivity; the play is a veritable smorgasbord of about-ness, so you can take your pick from the topic that hits closest to home for you. But does overdetermination make a play good? Sort of -- at least, I prefer plays that aren't excruciatingly simple.

What I truly liked about the play itself was its pacing and gradual revelation of information. It's got a story, and it's told well -- at least the "acting" bits are. Playwright Neil Labute chose to use a narrative frame involving the white male lead talking directly to the audience, although actually it feels like he's writing directly to the audience, as the character is a playwright supposedly, I think, writing the play as we go along, or some sort of worn-out post-anti-post-modern technique that, come to think of it, is rather like blogging.

I got tired of it, as you have of my discussing it.

The Firehouse website has links here to the Style Weekly, WCVE and Times-Dispatch reviews. I agree with the universal sentiment that the acting by Iacovo, Kennedy and Satterfield and direction by Patton are top-notch. It's the kind of production that makes me glad to live in Richmond, even though I wouldn't say the play itself is one I'd go see again.

A note on the set design, which at least two critics didn't like: My first thought on seeing it was the Malvina Reynolds song, "Little Boxes," a song which I think is only true enough to be a lie we want to believe in. Chew on that, if you've seen the play, eh? The music during the play matched the ticky-tacky perfectly. (It was the props I didn't care for; Cody and Belinda are wealthy, but the props didn't reflect that.)

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

P.S. Yes, that photo's from "Being John Malkovich." No, I can't explain why I thought it fit. Mostly, I'm just trying to use more pictures in my blog.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fagen, Threnody and Cameo Appearances by Rocky and a Special Alt Character

I was in Philadelphia this past weekend visiting an old friend (My daughter and her son were training; see photo) and forgot that the profile of final RSO director candidate, Arther Fagen, ran in Sunday's Times-Dispatch.

I'm particulary eager for this weekend's Masterworks concert because I want to hear "Nanking! Nanking!" by Bright Sheng, whose "Postcards" the symphony performed last year for a Metro Collection concert. The "Threnody for Orchestra and Pipa" was written for the memory of the 300,000 or more victims of the 1937 Japanese attack on Nanking, China. (A "threnody" is a song of mourning; I had to look it up.)

I'm also curious to hear how Fagen takes the Egmont. This is one of those Beethoven pieces that you've probably heard, even if you think you haven't. The überdramatic opening section can go slow, very slow, or very, very slow. Which will it be?!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Shape-Note Singing in Richmond

This article brought back my memory of attending a sing -- maybe even in Singers Glen, VA -- with my parents many years ago. I was a distracted, if not sullen, teenager, but still vividly remember how the timbers of the log church seemed to glow and the sound filled every corner.

Having grown up in a church tradition of acapella congregational singing-- everyone sang-- it has taken me a long time to realize just how impressive the sound of many unadorned human voices can be, especially if you've never heard it.

I've never been a confident singer. I'm not ever going to solo. But people singing together is definitely something that should happen more often.

Richmond Symphony: Lollipops and Dead Composers

Forgot to post the link to my review of the Richmond Symphony's first concert in its new Lollipops series, published in Sunday's Times-Dispatch.

Yes, "The Composer is Dead" is funny, and I don't think it's just "inside" jokes. For example, even if you don't really get why the part about the violas is funny, the music written for them sort of explains the joke.

This is the sort of piece that will certainly become standard repertoire for family concerts, if not for the occasional adult concert, too. (I think the grim humor of performing this piece on March 26, the date of Beethoven's still mysterious death, would be perfect.) What parent wouldn't rather take a kid to a show that they themselves will appreciate, too?

The symphony partnered with Radio Disney to provide publicity, I guess, and to help run the pre-show and half-time entertainment (costume contest, perky DJ). As much as I, the Snob, detest the Disney Channel (I'm guessing that Radio Disney is similarly detestable), I think this was a excellent move for the symphony. Advertise in the same places, you'll get the same people. Advertise in new places, you'll get new people. Maybe they've done RD partnerships before; I dunno.

By the way, speaking of funny, watch this video of Lemony Snicket and Nathaniel Stookey discussing "The Composer is Dead," in which Snicket compares it to a dead butterfly and a gateway drug, and makes the case for a hospitals to have house bands.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Alt Comix and Alt Characters

My report on the the appearance of R. Crumb and Françoise Mouly ran in today's Times-Dispatch.

I'm not a Crumb fan, but I still felt a little awed and odd to see, in person, the man responsible for this, for example. He voice is a mild tenor, his manner almost sweet. He actually said, "Awww" without affectation when some photos of his children and wife were shown overhead. He was a little shy-and-awkward, yes, but not reticent. Mouly guided the conversation through prompts and didn't have to ask very many direct questions; Crumb was willing to tell little stories and deliver wry aphorisms.

By the way, the post title does not refer to attendees at the event but to this exciting page that shows how to make ç and ü and £ and even ☺, if you're so inclined.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bad Medicine and the RTCC

I attended the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle award program on Sunday evening and submitted my article on time the next day. But for various newspaper-y reasons, it didn't run until Friday and was cut slightly.

Here's the published version. The online version doesn't include the full list of winners, which did run in print. Here are a few additional remarks:

*Aaron Gilchrist captured the spirit of the evening [or maybe he set its tone] with his unaffected charm.

*Tuxes, yes—which is not to say the jacket-over-jeans or the man-in-a-dress looks were absent.

*Shawls and scarves, yes-- with a few evening gowns and a knock-out Rita McClenny of the Virginia Film Office in thigh-high boots and a teeny blue dress.
[Sure, these last two bits are throw-away lines, but isn't the clothing part of the fun? Plus, I'm so fashion unconsicous, I had to work really hard on those lines!]

*For some reason, I thought Ms. Squire's line was the funniest of the night, so I had to end the article with "And who doesn't need an escape from that?" But it's true, if I were the editor trying to make the article fit, I would have cut that line too.

Also, I had written a whole part about Tom Width's speech when he accepted the lighting design award on behalf of Joe Doran. (Mr. Width is now on my list of People I'd Like to Meet.)

Tom Width, artistic director of Swift Creek Mill Theatre, accepted the Artsy for lighting design on behalf of Joe Doran, who was in New York. Doran did the lights for the Mill’s production of “Altar Boyz.”
“Joe told me, ‘I need $60,000 for lights.’ I said, ‘Go buy a Mega Millons ticket,’” Width told the audience. He gave Doran a budget, and Doran borrowed and rented equipment, bought things off eBay and created a design for the Mill’s “Altar Boyz” production that “put $60,000 of lighting design on stage for $5,000.”

I thought the story was both charming and indicative of the resourcefulness, creativity, and energy of Richmond theater that was so evident throughout the evening. But I realized I couldn't send those paragraphs in for publication and risk readers interpreting it to mean the Mill is somehow unprofessional. (I know, nonsense!--but my eyes were opened last year when I read an online comment elsewhere. Someone wrote that a Richmond Shakespeare production was "shoddy"--it was clear that person thought the absence of thousands of dollars worth of costumes and set means a production is automatically not good.)

So what's with the title of this post? Well, isn't that what critics are? I opened the paper on Thursday, sure that my RTCC article would finally appear in the Weekend section. Alas, no. But there was a nearly half-page article about the Bon Jovi TV special! 
Don't get me wrong: I think Melissa Ruggieri is a good writer, and statistics do support the notion that Bon Jovi is of more interest to a greater number of people than Richmond theater. But I consider it part of my job to grouse about such freakish injustice!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Richmond Symphony: Debussy, Prokofiev, Berlioz

My review of this concert appeared in Monday's Times-Dispatch, but there's no appearance of it online, so I'll post here. Read through for a few additional thoughts at the end.

Imagine a cup filled so full that the water makes a dome above its brim. The liquid trembles, bulges—but stays within the cup’s edge, held in place by surface tension until some outside force intervenes.
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is music that plays, metaphorically speaking, at the edge of the cup. The emotional tension was portrayed keenly on Saturday night by the Richmond Symphony and guest pianist Jeremy Denk, under the baton of conductor Christian Knapp, a candidate for the postion of music director of the symphony.

Written in C Major, but with melodies that quiver at the brinks of various minor keys, the concerto strains at the boundaries of simple categories like “happy” and “sad.” Denk’s performance showed this brilliantly. The piano cavorts into the first movement, but as the music spills over the edge of glee, Denk played with a near-vicious ecstasy. When a brooding equilibrium is reached, he didn’t let the music become complacent.

In introducing the concerto, Knapp remarked on Prokofiev’s fascination with machinery. The concerto does have passages of mechanical insistence, musical figures that get repeated like a step on the assembly line of sound, but Denk’s no automaton. He translated such moments into a manic playfulness that let the audience marvel at both his skill and the larger context of the music itself.

Denk performed with sensitivity to the orchestral voices, and the musicians played in harmonious partnership with him. At moments in the first and third movements, the violins and woodwinds seemed to have trouble hearing each other. Knapp worked quickly to bring them together.

The theme of tension at the threshold connected the first and last pieces on the program as well. “Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune” by Debussy and “Symphone fantastique” by Berlioz both explore the boundary between dream and waking worlds.

In Debussy’s dreamy afternoon, the surface shimmers, but doesn’t break. It’s easy to imagine the flute, oboe and other solo parts as light-footed fauns and nymphs. The musicians voiced these passages beautifully against the lush backdrop of harps and strings.

The opium-fueled dream Berlioz depicts is in sharp contrast to the languid eroticism of the Debussy. The music is by turns graceful, plaintive, violent and comic—and more—and requires quick mood shifts, which the musicians handled with ease.

Knapp directed emphatically, often using his full body, as if he were inside the dream himself. When the music ended, there were murmurs and sighs from the audience as we returned to the world of the concert hall to applaud.
Except that the sounds I heard were not so much murmurs and sighs as little gasps and burbles. That last movement's music is pretty crass, after all. But I couldn't use those words in a review, as they'd convey entirely the wrong meaning to readers who don't know the music.
(Burbles: you know, that sound some Educated People make when they laugh at something they think only Educated People realize is funny.) 
I also deliberately didn't use the word "animated" to describe Knapp's conducting. It's such a cliche, and I worried some readers would read it as a positive commentary ("Yay! the conductor is entertaining!") or as a negative commentary ("Humph. Too wacky. Undignified.") depending on their inclination. I hope "emphatically" came across as purely discriptive.
There were several points in the Berlioz and even once or twice in the Prokofiev that I thought the music sounded bottom-heavy. (Were six basses really necessary?) Personally, I'm all for a conductor who likes cellos and basses, but they were occassionally distracting in this performance.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

RSO Director Candidate: Christian Knapp

My profile of Mr. Knapp appeared in the Sunday Times-Dispatch.

Our phone conversation lasted an hour, so as is always the case, much of the challenge of writing the piece was getting it down to length. He spent quite a bit of time talking about "reaching out" to the community and used some specific, interesting examples of ways in which other orchestras have done this. But every candidate says he wants to reach out. Duh! So I decided not to use any of that part of the conversation.

I did want to try to work in this remark of Mr. Knapp, though: "The worst thing a conductor can do is to show up for the concerts and then leave when it's over."

If Knapp is chosen, will he remember he pronounced this judgment? This is pretty much what Mark Russell Smith did, spending most of his time in Minnesota with his other orchestra (and family), and it's certainly what Knapp and most of the other candidates are doing right now, gigging as guest conductors.

I don't know how many conductors lead this fly-around life by choice, because they're invigorated by its variety and challenge, and how many do it out of necessity, because as orchestras shrink in size and programming schedules, they're simply hiring fewer people and for fewer hours.

The coattails conductor may be the "worst thing," but unfortunately it may be a reality. Can the Richmond Symphony afford the financial incentive it would take to get its first choice of conductor to move (including, perhaps, a family) to Richmond full-time? I don't know.

(But I bet we'll land in the middle ground between "show up and leave" and "send my kids to local schools.")

However, I don't agree with Mr. Knapp, who may be inclined to overestimate the importance of a music director to the life of the orchestra as an entire organization. I think the worst thing a conductor can do, from the public's perspective, is to disrespect the audience by not taking into account its variety, intelligence and sincere desire to support the symphony.

Certainly, a conductor needs to spend enough time in a city to understand an orchestra's audience (and potential audience), and certainly a dedicated conductor could make the difference between a good orchestra and a phenomenal orchestral organization.

Personally, I would be flattered and delighted if a conductor chose to live full-time in this city I love. But I've got enough faith in the musicians and the staff of the orchestra that I'm relatively unconcerned if our new conductor doesn't move to Richmond.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fleck, Hussain, Meyer: Good Joke, No Beer

Nine years ago, I volunteered at the Mayo Island Music Festival just so I could hear Bela Fleck. Unfortunately, I got stuck slinging Miller Lite from a beer truck at the back of the field when Bela Fleck took the stage. Immediately, the trucks were slammed. Fleck was apparently too quiet and too subtle for many attendees and they decided it was time for another beer. I missed almost everything.

Fortunately, I got to hear Bela Fleck on Sunday, along with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain. Didn't have to serve cheap beer. Here's the review, which appeared in Tuesday's Times-Dispatch.

And here's a review by Taylor Barnett on

Sunday, October 4, 2009


The Snob's household is feeling the effects of a downward adjustment of income this summer. Yuengling beer in bottles changed to Yuengling in cans, and recently the Snob's husband switched to Natural Light in cans. That's when the Snob started drinking more tea.

On a more serious note, what does one do when there's simply less money? We rarely eat out and we've postponed certain home-improvement projects. But some things that may seem superfluous to other people, we've decided are important enough to keep, as long as we're lucky enough to be able to. Both girls take violin lessons, though we've cut back from 45-minute lessons to 30-minute lessons. They each participate in one sport. I'm still committed to buying tickets to performing arts events, although not nearly as often as I'd like.

The good news is that Richmond is full of high-quality, free or cheap concerts, particularly at the universities.

If you don't know about the Modlin Center's "Free Spot," well, for goodness sake, here you go!, click on the "Free Spot" at the left. All their free events are sorted out into a handy calendar. The VCU music department's calendar doesn't indicate prices at a glance, but it's full of free or cheap faculty recitals and other concerts.

Here are two in the immediate future:

Sunday, Oct. 4, 4 p.m.
VCU, Singleton Center
Susanna Klein, violin, and Dmitri Steinberg, piano

Monday, Oct. 5, 7:30 p.m.
University of Richmond, Modlin Center
Matt Albert (of eighth blackbird) and Andrew McCann, violins

And of course, the Richmond Folk Festival this coming weekend has free admission to everything! It such a fabulous deal that you really must go--and drop some bucks in the orange donation bucket, please. I'll try to post about the festival this week, after I spend some time today plotting my intended course. (I've yet to follow my own plans, but that's the beauty of the festival, that it doesn't matter--everything's wonderful.)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Critical Analysis

There have been interesting exchanges over the past several days between readers and writers of the blogs Richmond VA Theater, by Style Weekly freelance critic Dave Timberline, and The Barksdale Buzz, by Barksdale Theatre Artistic Director Bruce Miller. So interesting, in fact, I'm going to join in. How'd you guess?

"What are critics good for?" is a fair paraphrase of the central question. Although some commenters would answer simply, "Nothing," the real discussion involves the role of a (theater) critic in relation to theaters, audiences and potential audiences.

One could argue that a theater critic, reviewing a play on the first night of an at-least-3-week run, has a different role than a music critic reviewing a one-time performance. (Since the Richmond Symphony switched to only Saturday night and Sunday afternoon performances, reviews don't appear in the Times-Dispatch until after they could affect attendance for that particular concert set.)

But in the big picture, I think none of us are critics so much as we are intermediaries between the artists and the vast, vast number of people who haven't ever gone to a live performance but who we desperately wish would. These are the people I write for.

To get more specific, I'll play a number game:

  • 1,250,000
    Number of people in the Richmond-Petersburg MSA.
  • 1,000,000
    Number of those people who are a lost cause as far as attending arts performances goes.
  • 2,500
    Number of people who actually attended the last Richmond Symphony concert set. (Bump that down by about 60% for the Modlin Center or other venue.)
  • 7,500
    Number of regular or occasional classical music patrons who may decide to attend a concert in the next month or so. (These are the people--less than 1% of the general population--that arts organizations worry will be put off by a "bad" review--which is reasonable, as they're the people most likely to read reviews.)
  • 240,000
    Everybody else. (I know, of course, that they're not all reading my reviews, but just play along with the game, please.)

These are the people I'm so eager to reach, because I feel deep in my sweet little optimistic heart that if only they would release their preconceptions, let down their guard, truly listen and watch with their emotional, human core, they would be, yes, converted.

They are people who probably do not know the setting of "Carmina Burana" and have never heard of Philip Glass, let alone Mark-Anthony Turnage. They don't know (as I didn't, really) the plot of "Children of a Lesser God" and, because they're reading the newspaper, they are very unlikely to look up any of these things.

That's why I spend some of my precious word count on description, even if I'd rather not. I recognize the need to put my comments in context, because little is more off-putting for me than feeling like I'm on the outside of some exclusive coterie--I feel sure I speak for a few other readers.

That's why, when I sort out my thoughts after a performance before writing a newspaper review (as opposed to my ramblings on this obscure blog), I ask myself, "What will catch the attention of the non-patron? What will most usefully prepare a potential audience member's expectations for a future performance?"

In short, I don't write for musicians or their bosses. I don't care if my words are blurbable or not. I don't expect to be helpful in any kind of technical or promotional way, although I'm delighted on occasion when I feel I can be.

A few other thoughts:

1. I wouldn't be reviewing, as a critic, any concert or production that wasn't professional. I work under the assumption that professionals know what they're doing. However, as an editor, I know that even the best article benefits from a set or two of fresh eyes.

2. The quality of professional performances in Richmond is high. The question is never "Was the performance good or bad?" Instead, I address questions such as "Does this particular interpretation seem to be communicating with the audience, starting with me?" "Does this performance help me reach beyond the little box of my existence? If so, how? If not, why not?"

3. I have a vested interest in getting readers to go to concerts--after all, they keep me in work, in an indirect way.

4. Did you notice those quote marks around the word "bad" up there? Partly that's because I believe any free publicity is good publicity. (Of those 240,000 people, several thousand of them have never even heard of your organization/group/company.)

But partly it's because, Richmonders, if you ever think you've gotten a bad review, you need to stay the heck out of New York City. Tosca at the Met? Try this choice review with its opening line: "The Metropolitan Opera opened its new season last night with a shabby new production of Puccini’s 'Tosca' and a soprano who fit right in." And later: "Bondy’s new production is short on tassels and ormolu. That would be fine, but it’s also short on sets and costumes and imagination. How did this dopey show get on stage?"

Wonder how many tickets that sold?!

Richmond Symphony: Carmina Burana

My review of Saturday night's Masterworks performance ran in Monday's Times-Dispatch. Read it first, then here are a few more thoughts.

"Cignus ustus cantat," that roasting swan song, truly epitomized why live performance (by professionals) is alwasy better than a recording. What splendid avian agony from the oboe! What tortured misery from the tenor! Marcus Shelton was not on stage when the movement began... huh? He staggered on, smoldering (well, not literally) and hammed up the part, to the audience's delight. I'm just guessing, but it also seemed like Zeller, the baritone, felt more at home in his parts after Shelton's performance.

The problems with dynamic contrast that I mention were also evident in the first two pieces. I hope the review (as always, I only get about 400 words) makes it clear that I think this is primarily a matter of getting used to the new space, not a shortcoming of the conductor or the orchestra.

Likewise, I sometimes had trouble hearing the winds when the full orchestra was playing. I'm sure that was due to my seat in the sixth row. (Clarke Bustard didn't have that problem, but I don't know where he was sitting.)

Mr. Bustard also notes the reverberancy of sound in the hall. This is neither good nor bad, but it can present a challenge to work with, especially when there are so many elements, like in the "Carmina." A violinist I spoke to after the concert said that symphony staff were trying out all sorts of seating arrangements and placements during rehearsals and that the sound was incredibly "booming" without the 1700 bodies in the seats.

There were times, such as at the ends of some of the Carmina movements--when the sustained sound was perfectly dramatic. But at the end of the Brahms, the combination of a long sustain and Willis' perhaps nervous impatience meant he actually turned around to receive applause before the note ended.

Now for some wild tangents.

If I were a hard-core snob, I would complain that the program (Saint-Saens' Bacchanale, a "greatest-hits" sort of piece; Brahms' "Variations on a [Cute] Theme by Haydn"; and Orff's big-noise, Ozzy-adopted "Carmina Burana") was too familiar. But I'm the people's snob, so in addition to loving it, I'm also thinking about how all three pieces are, in the broadest sense, folk music.

In a strict sense, folk music is that which has no identifiable single origin, is associated with a particular culture or place, and can be played/sung without extensive techinical training. But for a while now, I've been thinking that only that last part should be retained. For one thing, modern obsessions with documentation and authorship/ownership have basically guaranteed that we know the origins of almost all music composed in the past century and a half. I think a better definition of folk music is simply music that folks can and want to recreate themselves, with more or less practice, from memory.

No, we didn't all go home and play the oboe solo from the beginning of the Bacchanale (oh, I wish). But all three works had easily identifiable melodies or melodic bits, stuff that folks could--and did--go home singing or humming. (The "theme by Haydn" is probably a folk melody from Austria. Did you click the Brahms link above?)

So humor me. It's kind of like folk music, right?

In any case, the program was a stoke of marketing genius--I'm saying this with admiration, not cynicism. Think about it: if you can hum the music, you'll remember it. If you remember the music, you'll remember the night you went to the Richmond Symphony. And if you remember that, you'll be more likely to go again. The symphony knew that the first Masterworks concert of the season in the new Carpenter Theatre would be very well attended. I do hope all of them return.

Monday, September 21, 2009

eighth blackbird: also appearing on toast

Here's the online review published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch… and here’s the detailed review, in program order, of the eighth blackbird concert, "Spam," at the Modlin Center on Wednesday, Sept. 16.

The concert began with “Twelve Hands” by Mayke Nas (2008), a work “for six players on one piano,” which I discuss in the published review. Musically, it’s rather forgettable. So many different things happen in such a short time that I had a hard time forging any emotional connections to it.

But it is a perfect piece to begin a concert, providing a kickstart to imagination. Who knew that running a credit card up and down the edges of the keys would sound like someone snoring… or whatever you thought it sounded like? Did you know a piano laughs when you tickle its upper strings? What next, and et cetera?

I was much more drawn in by the next piece, “Toward the Flame,” a work for violin, cello, flute and percussion composed in 2009 for 8bb by Newport News native Shawn Allison. The first movement, “Tun ‘Tawu” is characterized by spurts and runs, the second by slow glides and glissandos. The flute’s voice is prominent but not dominant. The instruments at times echo each other, although it’s not an exact echo—more like an impressionistic retelling of another’s phrase.

In a concert that seemed glutted with small musical gestures—short phrases, tight turns around small intervals—the third movement, “Atlas,” stood out with its larger, almost violent, gestures. I say “almost” because I can’t think of a word that fits right between “passionate” and “violent.” Music, like nature, defies language, as it should.

Program notes explain that “Toward the Flame” takes “inspiration from moths” and that Atlas moths have the largest wing area of any moth, “prehistoric in proportion.” Listening to this music, I had no trouble imagining the flashes of the Atlas moth’s wings as it soars through a Southeast Asian jungle, knowing nothing of passion, violence or beauty. I felt transported to a place just beyond rationality.

The last movement, “Chrysalis,” has a slow, pulsing feel and a drone-like cello. A caterpillar spinning a cocoon around itself has no knowledge of what will come, no idea that there’s any “after” to the darkness. The music closes quietly.

(I see from looking up Shawn Allison that he’s got two earlier compositions that use texts from Gerard Manley Hopkins—am fascinated already.)

I just couldn’t help myself: I actually thought the word “creepy” while I listened to Bent Sørensen’s “The Deserted Churchyards” (1990). Introducing the music, Tim Munro described it as a sort of “aural fog” achieved, at times, by the voices playing the same thing but not quite at the same time. There were moments this was a little disconcerting in a bad way—you know that tense feeling you get when you’re afraid a performer is slightly off?—but mostly it was disconcerting in a good, creepy way.

Similarly uncanny, the violin sometimes used a practice mute (I think) that produced a delicate buzzing sound. The work ended with Munro switching to a slide whistle that sounded just right with the tonal decay of the piano.

My mind boggles at the thought of the incredible focus it must take to perform this music. “Fog” is a good word to describe the mood of the piece, but the music itself was actually incredibly precise. At times, the musicians played so pianissimo my skin was crawling with the drama of it all.

“Spam,” by Marc Mellits (1995), finds a groove and chews it up. Syncopated rhythms (bearing a resemblance to rock the way Spam bears a resemblance to meat?) carry melodies through three stages. What begins laughingly morphs into a section of agitated minor tonalities. Then the music is mollified, gradually slowing and becoming pared away until it ends on a single tone. The ’birds played with affectionate irony, and be honest: isn’t that how you feel about Spam? This is music everyone should love.

(Warning: the link above will take you to a Monty Python video which has absolutely nothing to do with the eighth blackbird concert, although it was the inspiration for this blog post title.)

One minute into “Catch” by Thomas Ades (1991), I had an attack of the post-nasal drip—darn cheapo store-brand antihistamines—so I had to flee to the restroom to cough in peace. The lobby monitor’s sound wasn’t good enough to really hear the performance, but I did see some of the choreography.

“Catch” is written for piano, violin, cello and peripatetic clarinet. (You have to read that last bit out loud.) It’s music as school-game: the voices tease each other, pass notes, assert dominance. The clarinetist walks in and out, shoves his instrument into the personal space of the others.

I had watched this 8bb rehearsal video before the concert, and I really wanted to listen for how (if) the sound of the clarinet was changed by its movement around the stage—a Doppler micro-shift that would be, I guess—and how that sound affected the blend of sound as a whole.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Grazioso!” (2009) was generally inspired by the music of Led Zeppelin, according to the composer. I was listening for a Zeppelin-esque bass line, but there wasn’t really one—not that there should have been, but, you know, that was my other career choice, to play bass in an all-girl Zeppelin cover band.

In “Grazioso!” the bass clarinet was in such a low register I often had a hard time hearing it. I thought if Maccaferri sat away from the cello and the open piano (speaking of Doppler) that might help audiences distinguish the voices.

My first impression of the piece was of chaos, but then riffs emerged in solos or duets. This was probably my least favorite piece on first listen, but the first I’d give a second listen to, so as to hear Albert and Photinos nail some of the passages so fabulously again.

This was only my second eighth blackbird concert, so I can’t judge if its length of less than an hour of music, was typical, but I wished it had been longer. Not that $16 to $20 is outrageous for a ticket, but hey, why not love the fans and throw in an old favorite? The people who showed up by mistake already left at intermission. I heard the woman behind me “complaining” that the concert was over too soon. Next time, we’ll have to yell “Encore!” and see what happens.

Friday, September 18, 2009

eighth blackbird Times-Dispatch review

My review of Wednesday night's eighth blackbird concert is in today's Times-Dispatch, but I can't find it online yet. I wanted my audience to be people who had never gone to an 8bb concert, either because they never considered it or because they didn't know what it would be like. With only 400 words, I had to keep it very general.

I've got way more than 400 words to say about the concert, of course, so I'll post here again after I can find the T-D link. (You've got to contribute to the page hits, you know, so they'll keep covering music like this!)

UPDATE: Here it is!

Meanwhile, here's my take on the 'birds concert last fall.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Grand Opening performance at Richmond CenterStage

I arrived home Saturday night at 10:45 with a midnight deadline. As I sat down to type, I could hear whine of Richmond International Raceway, so I knew I had some time. (Yes, it was NASCAR for which the Times-Dispatch was holding the presses, not an arts performance.) An hour and a half later, I filed my story.

Naturally, the hardest part was deciding what to leave out. Go read the article, then come back here for a few more thoughts. I'll wait.

If you read the article, you know the Richmond Symphony was performing from the pit, even for their "solo" turns on Shostakovich's "Festive Overture," which opened the program (after the national anthem) and Bernstein's Overture to "Candide," which opened the second half.

Naturally, this dulled the dramatic effect of these two uber-dramatic pieces. In the section of the Shostakovich near the end where the brass return with a proclamatory theme, they were, incredibly, not loud enough. But otherwise, it was a good performance.

At intermission I went to the tech stand to ask about the camera work (you read the article, right?) and happened to find the head video guy, who told me that live video switchers were working with a symphony staff person in a room beneath or behind the orchestra pit. The symphony person had the score and told the video crew when to switch to which cameras, so the audience could see soloists and sections during their action. Why was I so surprised that Richmond could be this professional?

Here's why. Because 15 minutes later, Richmond was infuriatingly unprofessional--at least the audience was.

Richmond Symphony undoubtedly played the Bernstein just as smashingly as the Shostakovich, but it was hard to tell, since the audience talked fully half-way through the performance. Erin Freeman began the piece at some strictly pre-ordained time that should have been the end of intermission, but so many people were still in the lobby (gulping cocktails and buying souvenier T-shirts) that the ushers kept the doors open as they hustled people back to seats. The house lights stayed on, and even though the projected image of the symphony performing was clear, people wouldn't shut up. Emily, my 12-year-old daughter, had to share her Twix with me to calm my rage. Maybe it works for italics, too.

For the second performing group of the night, the curtain rose on eight members of the Richmond Jazz Society, with a beautifully understated setting of strings of little white lights hanging down in front of a blue-lit background. The performance was top-notch and typical -- Sinatra-style, with lyrics including, "CenterStage, the best is yet to come."

The best thing about African American Repertory Theatre portion--which included young people from City Dance Theatre-- was the total coherence of many different parts into a whole. Pastiche? No way.

Also, in case you've never considered how difficult it might be to do a Langston Hughes tribute without overdosing on all the sap that could potentially ooze from the word "dream," let me tell you: it's hard, but I saw evidence that it can be done, with physical action, tight segues and strong voices. So now let's take a poetry break. Here's Hughes' "The Dream Keeper," which AART performed emotionally, but not sentimentally.

Bring me all of your dreams,
you dreamer,
bring me all your
heart melodies
that I may wrap them
in a blue cloud-cloth
away from the too-rough fingers
of the world.

Opera: do people really just go for the costumes and the sets, or do they in fact like the music? There's no real answer to this question, of course, but it's certain that audiences expect the eye candy. Virginia Opera didn't disappoint, bringing in a huge set piece and full dress for their portion of the show. And hey, the music was good, too!

Under the direction of Peter Mark, singers and the symphony performed a duet, a solo and a quartet from Puccini's "La Boheme." The balance of voices and instruments was excellent, with the violins singing out their parts in equal measure. (Can you tell I'm more of an orchestra person than an opera person?)

The paired organization of Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV performed four flat-out different pieces, with live musical accompaniment by the RSO: "We're All in This Together" from "Disney's High School Musical"; a bolero called "Amores" that's part of the play "Boleros for the Disenchanted" by Jose Rivera; "Forget About the Boy" from the musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie"; and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" from "The Sound of Music." That's pretty much the history of 20th-century music theater in the western world in 15-minutes. Whew!

I am a snob, after all, so I don't like musicals. Or so I thought. The song and dance number from "Millie" pretty much changed my mind. Tap dancing, synchronized desk-twirling, girls in outrageous wigs... What's so wrong about a little fun?

And who doesn't want to cry at the sight of little pretend waifs singing "Castle on a Cloud"? Or jump to one's feet and throw back one's head to "Do You Hear the People Sing"?! Gosh, I have to go out and rent a "Les Miserables" video right now while I wait until next summer for whatever SPARC performs then.

Elegba Folklore Society was next--I also mentioned them in the article, but I didn't mention the stilt-dancer who came on near the end. Having seen an amazing stilt performance at a recent Folk Festival downtown, I thought this one wasn't quite ready to go. The dancer's gestures were subdued (and he had to keep hitching up a slipping mask) and the footwork not confident. But women's dance ensemble and the drummers were excellent. They performed an excerpt from "Marketplace Suite."

I'm going to skip over the Richmond Shakespeare part for now, except to say that I wanted to mention them in the published article in the same context as the "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" performance (buty ran out of room). All the actors wore costumes from markedly different times and places. The effect could have been one of a little provincial theater stocked with costumes left behind from travelling productions, but as the program notes put it, "the costumes reflect the many eras influenced by--or [which] were influences on--William Shakespeare." I became convinced that this was a powerful visual statement of unity--but maybe a little too subtle for people who didn't read that program and don't know that Richmond Shakespeare does really think about these things.

I've only been to two other Richmond Ballet performances--a "Nutcracker," which hardly counts, and a Studio series night a couple years ago. As you know from the T-D piece, their performance of the last section of "Windows" touched me deeply. "Spectacle" is a word I sometimes use derogatorily, but I'd like to rescind all negative connotations for the moment, please. Sure, it's easy to be impressive with lots of people, and beautiful attire, and live music (oh, if only that could be true at every performance!)--but it's also easy, with all those same elements, to be sloppy, or crass. Every element of this performance was attended to with care, knowing that it was a spectacle--something to be seen, something calculated to inspire wonder.

So yes--a whirlwind tour, a traveling circus, a rich-folks dress-up party, a top-down-no-grassroots congratulatory orgy. Whatever it was, I laughed, I cried. It was better than a hole in the ground.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why Johnny Can't Shoot

On February 28, 2007, NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr ended his commentary on the national Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) with this remark:

Leave no child behind is a slogan that President Bush borrowed from the Children's Defense Fund and applied to his No Child Left Behind education program. Perhaps it could be applied as well to children's health. Or perhaps children's health should be redefined as a defense program, meant to ensure a supply of healthy young people for future wars.
Fast-forward to this morning, and read the Richmond Times-Dispatch's front-page article, "70 percent of young people are unable to enlist," excerpted below. It begins:

Money spent on early-childhood education today can help protect America's national security tomorrow, former military leaders said yesterday at a news conference in Richmond.
But a Washington-based group of retired military leaders called Mission: Readiness -- Military Leaders for Kids said that providing more at-risk children with early education would increase high school graduation rates, reduce crime and improve physical fitness among young people.

"The younger they start with education, the better they will be in the future," said retired Army Brig. Gen. Clara L. Adams-Ender of Lake Ridge.

And, Mission: Readiness said, that would increase the number of people who could qualify to volunteer for the armed services.

Nearly 30 percent of Virginia high school students fail to graduate on time or drop out entirely, said the nonprofit group, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"We cannot allow today's dropout crisis to become a national security crisis," said retired Air Force Gen. Richard E. Hawley of Newport News. ...

The article by staff writer Peter Bacque goes on to report that Mission: Readiness backs full funding of the Virginia Preschool Initiative, at $30-$35 million a year. Delegate Mamye BaCote, who joined the M:R people on stage for the conference, took a bit of the shine off the brass's enthusiasm. "I don't know where the money's coming from right now, but we'll find it if we can," the article quotes her as saying.

Well, yeah. If this were West Virginia, maybe we could sell some leftover F-22 parts. At the national level, the military always seems to get a huge chunk of the budget. Is it time to redefine early education as a defense program?

Of course, here in Virginia, we've got tobacco, a useful fundraiser as long as people keep smoking...

If you've got the time, here's the editorial I wrote for the August 2007 issue of Richmond Parents Monthly:

It’s a good thing I was sitting down when I read the news about the vote to raise federal taxes on cigarettes, because I just about fainted dead away from the stupidity of the idea.

The Senate Finance Committee voted on July 19 to raise the per-pack federal tax from 39 cents to $1 in order to expand health care coverage for uninsured children though SCHIP (see sidebar [below]). The bill will be debated in the full Senate; if it passes, it will go to the House for debate.

At first, I chortled. Yeah, tax the heck out of those coffin nails! Plus, save the children! Then I read farther into the article and realized that the twisted logic behind this bill may actually be detrimental to the health of children.

The article quoted Daniel E. Smith, president of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, saying the move would “discourage youth and adults from smoking.” Presumably, Smith shares the same goal as Wyoming senator Michael Enzi, who, the article also reported, wants to eliminate national tobacco use in a generation. (He has introduced a different bill aimed at doing so.)

Now wait a minute. If the higher cost of cigarettes reduces the amount people smoke, will SCHIP funding goals be reached? If I’d like to see increased funding for children’s health care, should I start buying cigarettes? Could smokers someday feel good about lighting up, knowing that they’re supporting the nation’s uninsured children?

Even though a higher cigarette tax probably won’t appreciably affect the number of cigarettes sold in the short term, it’s clear that the two goals of this proposed tax bill are at odds with each other.

The biggest question is: Why seek to get funds from an activity you want to eliminate? If we truly believe that the health of our nation’s children is important enough to direct federal dollars to it, we need to stop treating it as an afterthought, trying to squeeze dollars from butts.

Using poorly thought-out reasoning to address a crucial issue only delays the real solution for uninsured children.

Money spent on children’s health care is an investment. If children receive regular checkups—at which their parents can receive health education, as well—and basic preventive care, savings will be realized in the form of decreased sick care costs later.

Politicians have a tough job. It’s hard to estimate how much, spent now, will result in savings later. And it’s hard take money away from something else to fund a program with results that aren’t immediately realized. But when our leaders start radically re-assessing the importance of children’s health, they will be able to see beyond the piecemeal tax tactic.

Back in February, I had another near-fainting moment related to the SCHIP debate when the most acutely cynical remark I’ve ever heard came zinging from my car radio. I had to switch it off and choke back tears.

Daniel Schorr, senior news analyst for National Public Radio, was assessing a National Governors Association meeting at which President Bush spoke mainly about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But many governors, Schorr said, wanted answers about the future of funding for SCHIP. The Bush administration had indicated it had no plans to increase the 5 billion federal dollars it spends annually on the program.

The amount, said Schorr, might be called “piddling” compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S. defense budget. Maybe, he concluded, “children’s health should be redefined as a defense program, meant to assure a supply of healthy young people for future wars.”

Is that what it will take? If our country continues to rule by twisted logic, who knows?

What is SCHIP?

The State Children’s Health Insurance Program aims to provide health insurance for children in families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but still can’t afford private health insurance.

The program is funded by national and state governments. Within broad federal guidelines, states design their own programs.

In Virginia, the program is called FAMIS, for Family Access to Medical Insurance Security. For more information, call 1-866-87FAMIS or see

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Still Magic After All These Years

From a dusty high shelf last week I pulled down some cassette tapes. My car contains the only functioning implement with which to decode these messages from the previous century, so today as I drove I listened to "Peter, Paul and Mommy."

I had the original 1969 PP&M record--the dust jacket folded open to reveal a 20-inch version of the front photo and the injunction to "Pin a mustache on Peter and Paul." I loved that record. When my older daughter was 4 or so, I bought the cassette for her, and she liked it, but I don't think she dreamed to it the way I did.

Listening to it again today, with my younger daughter in the back seat, I was amazed that I had liked these songs--many of them are quite adult, or at the least, sentimental. There are two lullabies, not counting Peter Yarrow's "Day is Done," which strikes me now as an obscene combination of adult angst and tender bedtime wishes. Here's a verse and the chorus:

Do you ask why I'm sighing, my son?
You shall inherit what mankind has done.
In a world filled with sorrow and woe
If you ask me why this is so, I really don't know.

And if you take my hand my son
All will be well when the day is done.
And if you take my hand my son
All will be well when the day is done.

After listening a little, Helen asked me to turn up the volume, and when we got to our destination she was sad that we had to turn off the car. (I explained that the music would start from the same spot when we turned the car back on. "But in Dad's car, the music doesn't stay where you left it," she said. She accepted my answer that a radio is different than a tape player, but clearly, the distinction between these ancient technologies was not a matter of concern for a 6-year-old child of the 21st century.)

On the return trip, as we were pulling up to the house in the middle of "Puff, the Magic Dragon," Helen asked with more sincerity than one would think possible in a child whose favorite song is quite possibly "Cat Flushing a Toilet," "Could you not turn off the car until the song is over?"

Oh, sweet child, of course I won't. This is the song I used to almost cry to. I had a private worry, each time, that somehow the words would have changed and Puff would slip into his grave instead of his cave.

Best of all, throughout the whole ride, she never once asked me to stop singing along.

I like to think that the absolute beauty of the music --the shifting melody and harmony lines among the three voices, the detailed guitar work-- are what touched my obstinate, opinionated, independent younger daughter. Maybe she was just in a mellow mood this afternoon.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jose Marti: I Grow a White Rose

One of the narrated poems in the "Son Corazon" performance (see previous post) was translated into English, alternating languages every two lines. I'm not a Spanish speaker, but I am a poet, and as I listened, I suspected the translation wasn't doing the original justice. Before we left at intermission, I glanced at someone else's program just long enough to see that the poem was by Jose Marti.

(Everything I know about Marti I learned from Pete Seeger's rendition of "Guantanamera.")

I looked around the Internet this morning and found that the almost-literal translation used at the performance is dismayingly common. But here's one that attempts to preserve the rhyme of the original.

I have a white rose to tend
In July* as in January;
I give it to the true friend
Who offers his frank hand to me.

And for the cruel one whose blows
Break the heart by which I live,
Thistle nor thorn do I give:
For him, too, I have a white rose.

Cultivo una rosa blanca,
En julio* como en enero,
Para el amigo sincero
Que me da su mano franca.

Y para el cruel que me arranca
El corazón con que vivo,
Cardo ni oruga cultivo:
Cultivo la rosa blanca.

*I think this should be "June," although "July" turns up in both Spanish and English versions on the Internet. It's amazing how mistakes turn into reality here. I need to find a reputable, actual book.

Here's another version. It seems, amazingly, to be from a publication called Military Review.

I grow a white rose,
In June as in January,
For my true friend
Who gives me his honest hand.

And for the cruel man who tears from me
The heart with which I live,
Thistle nor thorn do I grow:
I grow the white rose.

Cultivo una rosa blanca,
en junio como en enero,
para el amigo sincero
que me da su mano franca.

Y para el cruel que me arranca
el corazon con que vivo,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo:
cultivo la rosa blanca.

The Body and Brain Rhumba

The People's Snob doesn't appreciate good dancing. That is to say, I don't know the difference between good dancing and bad dancing. If the dancers wobble a little when they land, is that bad? What if I don't care? If a dance includes someone dramatically prostrating herself on the stage, is that good? Or bad? What if that particular move drives me bonkers? Would you believe this is not the last of the rhetorical questions this post will pose?

Of course, I do appreciate free dancing, so I was happy to go see a performance of "Son Corazon" by the Latin Ballet at Dogwood Dell last weekend.

I have a memory of seeing a Latin Ballet performance at the Children's Museum of Richmond, where the small space intensified the energy of the dancers and turned the experience of watching into something almost participatory. The large stage and amphitheater of the Dell diluted this feeling, but probably made for a technically better performance.

"Son Corazon" purports to be an "emotional and uplifting journey through dance based on the real stories of Cubans living in the United States," and had we picked up one of the printed programs, we might have followed the journey. (Also, we didn't stay for whole performance, as the young one was so tired that we left at intermission.)

As it was, it simply looked liked beautiful dances based on African and Spanish traditions, with fabulous costumes and a few hats.

Several of the dances included narration, some of which was in Spanish only, and some of which was also translated into English. This didn't strike me as dramatically necessary because it wasn't of a storytelling nature. (Maybe the second half included stories.)

So this performance made me uncomfortable in the same way that I usually feel uncomfortable at dance performances: I don't understand this hybrid of movement and narration, of body and brain. Why must a dance mean something?

Take away the program, the narration, the costumes. What's left is the dance. Movement alone tells the story of any conflict, love, and loss. If I had not known in advance that this performance was called "Son Corazon," that it had something to do with Cuba, would I have enjoyed it more, not struggling to create a historical narrative?

I know that throughout the ages, dance has been used as a means of storytelling, of perserving a people's history. But I don't want to have to try to understand a story; I want it either told to me or not. Am I too uptight--should I let the performance mean halfway?

I think that answer is yes, but I think a better way of asking myself the question is to say, "What can I do to help myself combine the intellectual understanding of a story with the physical understanding of dance, so that both halfway meanings make something whole?" And I suppose the answer to that is to go to more dance performances.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Richmond Shakespeare Upstages the Staged Reading

My last experience with a “staged reading” was uncountable years ago and involved high stools, somber lighting and forced gaiety. But I couldn’t not go to Cymbeline, performed Tuesday night by Richmond Shakespeare as a staged reading directed by David White. (Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s later romances, was originally slated as the last play of the indoor season, but was replaced by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I groused about the switch here.)

As a member of POEM, I was eager to see Cymbeline because I had never read the play or seen it performed. Among other things, I wanted to test my perceptive powers: could I really follow Shakespearean English without having read the play?

Of course, this depends greatly upon the actors. And in this case, the actors were stellar.

I was flat-out impressed by how, using pretty much only their voices and faces, they transformed a bare stage into a coherent, captivating world. I especially liked Aly Wepplo’s Imogen, the heroine—played with just the right combination of feisty and sweet. David Janeski as Imogen’s beloved, Posthumus, was earnest but not uptight. And holy smokes-- Vicki McLeod as the evil stepmother Queen! I was actually glad she wasn’t in full-fledged production mode—she was so devious, I think a costume and set would have merely been encumbrances.

My comprehension was also aided by a few humorous costume props and a larger cast than usual, which saved me the effort of distinguishing among characters played by the same people.

The cast used music stands to rest their script folders on, and most of the time, this was done either discreetly or the stands were incorporated into the action or set. However, I wish a few of the actors had been directed to keep their stands either above the navel or below the nipples, because watching someone talk to the floor is no fun, and neither is not being able to see their mouths.

But that’s a minor point. The major point is that Richmond Shakespeare proves that “staged readings” are not snoozers. (Even if someone had wanted to fall asleep, he couldn’t have dozed off with all the noise of audience laughter.) So when you see the next one on the RS schedule—it’s going to be a regular feature next year when they move into CenterStage—you shouldn’t hesitate to get a ticket.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hootenannies, Historic and Metaphoric

I got a phone call at work this week that made me happier than any other call I've ever gotten at work.

"Would you cover a hootenanny we're having in May to celebrate Pete Seeger's 90th birthday?"

The sun came out from behind the clouds (the ones that now glower perpetually over the offices of every print media company) and a chorus of angels sang "Guantanamera."

I didn't know anyone else in Richmond cared about Pete Seeger. A few years ago, I mentioned his 1963 Carnegie Hall concert recording to a left-wing, banjo-playing friend and got blank stares.

(As I type right now, I'm getting choked up listening Pete lead hundreds of people in "We Shall Overcome" as he weaves his harmony over and under the voices.)

To hear the news that some folks have organized a three-hour, multi-performer, honest-to-goodness, bring-down-the-rafters hootenanny, featuring many of the songs Pete Seeger made famous, in honor of his birthday warms my heart like I can't describe.

I don't have the details with me, but here are the basics: May 3 at The Camel , 8-11 p.m. Ron Gentry and friends, Cheryl Warner and the Southside Homewreckers, and many other musicians will perform.

A hootenanny, of course, depends upon a willingly participatory audience, and that is Pete's legacy, no matter what your politics: he showed people how amazing it is to be one singing voice among many.

Metaphorically speaking, a hootenanny is what I went to last night. About 30 people gathered for a guided "grassroots conversation" about Richmond and its future. I was one of perhaps 4 or 5 people who did not personally know the organizer and leader, blogger John Sarvay (sultan of consultin' with his business, Floricane). We moved among small, random groups and discussed the ways in which each of us and Richmond were alter egos of each others.

Hmmm... well, not really. But it was all rather abstract and subjective, with no clear purpose. Or, rather: no measurable purpose. I think most everyone who attended was challenged (challenged themselves) to act on whatever intersection of self and city they discovered.

For instance, one mother of a young child wants to send him to the local public elementary school, at which most students come from low-income homes. She has already joined the PTA, but now wonders how to reach out to neighborhood parents who probably will send their children to private schools or apply through open enrollment to other public schools. This reaching out requires an extraordinary level of energy and bravery (one which I wasn't able to muster).

Throughout the evening, I was reminded that personal, passionate actions count, no matter how small. One (white) man goes to (black) Mosby Court every Sunday afternoon with a friend and spends a few hours shooting hoops, or talking, or passing time. He said, "I had to learn that this wasn't about looking for results." Yet he is hopeful--certain--that his actions will have positive future consequences.

But back to the hootenanny metaphor: Pete Seeger helps people see that when they sing together--joyfully, un-self-consciously--they don't need to be afraid of being quiet, raspy, loud or out-of-tune. And then it's very easy to transfer this confidence into action.

Last evening, as we were all talking to (not at) each other about a city we all love, I felt in myself the growth of the same kind of confidence. Speaking for myself only, I'm not sure what, or when or even if, action will result from the conversations. But I believe these talkin' hootenannies are important to have.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Barksdale Theatre: Children of a Lesser God

I wrote this response on March 12, but somehow forgot to post it. "Children of a Lesser God" runs at Barksdale's Willow Lawn theater through Sunday.

Last night I fell in love with Sarah Norman. As played by Erica Siegal, she was so sweet and prickly and honest, I knew exactly why James Leeds (as played by Brandon Nagel) married her--and it wasn't to teach, protect or save her. As she pulled her anguish out of her heart, I wanted to grasp Sarah's shoulders and say, "Look, he LOVES you!"

But love--like anger, humor, courage, or silence--can't solve everything alone, no matter what I or any of the characters think. Sarah, by whatever twist of personal history, understood herself first as a deaf person and second as a lovable person.

The play begins with about 15 minutes of almost ridiculously fast-paced development. Between Sarah's entrance to her speech teacher James Leeds' classroom and his post-curfew entrance through her bedroom window, I had no sense of how much time had gone by. Days? Months? Did I miss something?

I understand the need for broad scene-setting and character-establishing strokes. Medoff's script accomplishes a lot without overexplaining (although James does have an awful lot to say about himself to Sarah seemingly within their first two days of acquaintance). I wonder if some visual cues, such as changed colors in lighting or costume, might have demonstrated elapsed time and slowed the pace. More moments of action without words would have also helped: for a play that deals with silence (at least in a physical sense), it sure has a lot of sound.

All the action takes place on the same set, with minimal movement of a few basic pieces (benches shaped, interestingly, kind of like the crooked fingers of an "air quote" mark)--and this keeps things moving along, too.

The pace of the script and the performance does slow as the play enters its most substantive territory, dealing with James' and Sarah's struggles to bridge, merge or separate their four worlds: external, internal, non-hearing, hearing. (No wonder there's no single way to solve everything.)

The four principal actors (including Richard Gregory as Orin Dennis and Michelle Mary Schaefer as Lydia) are wonderful together; I got the sense they knew each other as characters, not just as actors. I especially liked Schaefer's Lydia, who reminded me of a person or two I've known--assertive and brash, but still a vulnerable young woman, trying to figure out if she's desirable, measuring her desirability against the standards of others. Are some of those standards imposed by the hearing world--for instance, talking? Is the desirability of talking a standard to be rejected, as Sarah does, as James tries to?

"Children of a Lesser God" deals with these questions, and many more, without resolving them--thank goodness. Life's just not that tidy.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Richmond Shakespeare: Amadeus

I know "Amadeus" is all wrong, but I love it anyway. It's one of the movies I find myself thinking about at least once a year, one scene or another flashing across my inner vision.

I detest Salieri, and I understand him. I despair of mediocrity, and I revel in the ordinary. I can't agree that talent is a gift entire, doled out by a mysterious or capricious God, but faced with something like the "Gran Partita" Serenade ("high above it-- an oboe--a single note--hanging there, unwavering") , the alternatives seem unlikely.

I've been anticipating Richmond Shakespeare's stage production for months, and I finally got to go last night. Performances by the entire cast were strong, and I didn't notice the period-inappropriate "manners and nuances" that Style Weekly reviewer Mary Buruss remarked upon. (Anachronistic gestures are a pet peeve of mine, too, but either I'm not as nuanced as she, or RS cleaned things up.)

Salieri (Andrew Hamm) and Mozart (Mike Hamilton) and Constanze (Liz Blake) take bows at the end of "Amadeus," but they're not the only main characters. The music is a presence so massive it functions as a separate character, and this notion is encouraged by Shaffer's script, which likens Mozart's music to God's voice, or God incarnate.

In Richmond Shakespeare's production of "Amadeus," the music is problematic. What to do, when the house (in this case, the chapel of Second Presbyterian Church) has limited production capabilities? There's no precise sound control, no way to bring sound in at different source points--no way, in other words, to give this character the independence it deserves.

I don't know what Shaffer's stage directions for the music actually are, but I feel RS erred on the side of caution. The several instances when music overlapped speaking worked just fine, and there should have been more of this, and more music in general.

I also don't know what liberties, if any, were taken with Shaffer's script, but there should have been more of those, too. Liberties, that is; to be precise: cuts. It's almost a joke to complain that there were "too many words," but that's exactly how I felt, especially in Mozart's dying moments but also in Salieri's opening monologue and various of his narrative advances. Richmond Shaekspeare can do silence well (their "Hamlet" was an excellent example), but if the script contains unnecessary words, lengthening the spaces between them isn't going to help.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

RSO Plays Beethoven: It's Okay to Feel Good

The People's Snob likes Beethoven, unlike other snobs who say they've outgrown him and his B bookends, Bach and Brahms.

The Snob especially appreciates Beethoven's music when it's programmed thoughtfully, as RSO candidate #5 Arthur Post did this past weekend, placing the First Symphony at the start of a program that moved on to Boccherini's cello concerto (Neal Cary soloing) and finished with Shostakovich's First Symphony. (The Snob can't stand it when Beethoven's music is over-dramatized in order to conclude a concert.)

Beethoven's First Symphony is reasonable, pretty, clever but not overbearingly witty; it's got tunes that can be hummed and tempos that can be tapped. In short, it's deservedly popular. At Saturday's performance, the slow second movement was the standout. The others galloped a little too much for me, and even with only 2 horns and 2 trumpets, the brass section was at times out of balance and flat, as in "blaat"--non-sparkling--not as in out-of-tune.

Likewise, the slow second movement of the Boccherini was my favorite. Neal Cary opened up his vibrato more than in the first movement... and it's just beautiful music anyway. Then, like all the extra cellists in the audience (see previous post), I had to hold my mouth shut so I wouldn't sing along with the third movement: it's the kind of giddy melody that lets even hardened snobs feel good about feeling good.

Listening to the Shostakovich symphony was like watching a building being constructed, and torn down, again and again, slightly differently each time. It's a monumental piece with many themes and voices. The performance was well-done, and like the Beethoven, not over-dramatized. Yes, it's a dramatic piece, and it ends loudly, but it deserves to. In its own way, it is just as reasonable as the Beethoven.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Cello to the Nth Power

You'd think it wouldn't be so hard to count cellists--they sit to play, after all. But even from my front-row balcony seat, I kept losing track around 48. So I can't say for sure, but I think I attended a concert of 59 cellists Saturday.

It was a free, informal concert capping a day of workshops led by Julliard teacher and cellist Bonnie Hampton. The participants ranged in age from about 8 to 80, and were of all skill levels. They performed several short pieces arranged for four-part cello orchestra.

The "wow" factor was undeniable. My 12-year-old was very impressed, and I think my 5-year-old would've been too, had she not been more interested in trying to silently eat the bag of chips she'd smuggled in. (She turned a petulant ear to stage after I confiscated the snack.) It's too bad the audience numbered less than half of those on stage, because it was the kind of event that could impress and intrigue a young person into learning to play an instrument.

In any case, 59 cellos--give or take a few--make a gorgeous sound.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Roby Lakatos at the Modlin Center

Once upon a time, a demon was exorcised from a player piano. It took up residence in Budapest at the seat of a cimbalom, and that is Jeno Lisztes.

Meanwhile, Charlie Daniels visited Hungary and lost his soul to a man with a black leather suit, a red handkerchief, and a violin. That is Roby Lakatos.

The Roby Lakatos Ensemble performed at the Modlin Center Saturday night, a concert almost entirely filled with devilishly fast, Gypsy-inspired music. Besides violin and cimbalom, there was an unfortunately overshadowed second violin, a guitar and a piano, both with several excellent moments of glory, and an underappreciated upright bass.

The Program
The cimbalom is played like a hammered dulcimer, but has a sturdier sound. At times, especially on sustained notes, it almost sounded like a brassy wind instrument. Its best moments were as a solo or in duet with violin or guitar.

Lakatos is an incredible violinist, no doubt about it--maybe a little too incredible. Although the ensemble managed major tempo and rhythmic shifts with ease, they had a hard time cohering melodically and harmonically when Lakatos was tearing up and down the neck of the violin.

This problem didn't bother me so much itself, actually, but it was a symptom of a bigger issue: the program could have used a little more variety. The second piece--"Papa, Can You Hear Me" from the movie "Yentl"--demonstrated that Lakatos could wander down lonely paths in dusk-laden forests, musically speaking, but he never went back there.

Most of the pieces alternated fast sections with slower--or at least calmer, duet-based--sections, but in general, a little more swagger and a little less sizzle would have helped me enjoy the concert more.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Richmond Symphony Goes Sweet and Low

The Snob hasn't seen the letter from Richmond Symphony about changes for the next season that Clarke Bustard describes over at Letter V, but that won't keep her from sharing a few uninformed opinions!

  • Switching Monday night Masterworks concerts to Sunday afternoons: EXCELLENT! Given the move back downtown, this makes much more synergistic sense, since area restaurants and galleries can be open before and/or after the concert.
  • Cutting Friday night Masterworks concerts: UNFORTUNATE! but undoubtedly fiscally prudent. Or else the CenterStage operation has dibs on Fridays for other events. But RSO patrons are high-frequency events attenders, and taking away one of their options will more often force them to choose between Masterworks and Modlin, Masterworks and the Rennolds series, or any other one-time event that falls on a Saturday night. The Symphony holds the weak hand in this showdown, since it's "always here." Sunday afternoon will be an option for some, but not all patrons.
  • Creating a Saturday morning series of educational concerts, called "Lollipops.": STOMACH-TURNING! With a name like that, the RSO is staking claim to the 3- to 5-year-old demographic, which will expect actual lollipops to be distributed at the event. If the point is to create pleasant associations between the symphonic experience and sweet treats, why not something less infantile? The Bundt Cake Concerts. Soda Saturdays. Breath Mint Family Music. Sure, "Kicked Back Classics"--which this series replaces--was physically not so smooth to say, but it conveyed the spirit of the concert without limiting the audience to people so young they'll call it "Wah-wii-pops."
Gripes aside, I'm glad to see that RSO is continuing its outreach to family audiences and trying something new.

Although I don't know whether concerts by its 4 youth orchestras will be back downtown or in area schools (as they have been--and which might not be a bad thing to continue) I hope at least a few are held in the Carpenter Theatre.

The youth orchestra/family education program has sometimes seemed like an afterthought of the RSO--at least from a promotional standpoint. But young musicians attract and hold the attention of young people with a power that adult musicians--no matter how much more skilled--just don't have.

There are more changes starting with the 09-10 season--maybe they'll be posted on the RSO website soon.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Hat is Passed

Look, kids. I don't want your magazines, cookies or frozen pizzas. I don't want to sponsor you at a $1 a minute for your jump-rope-a-thon. If I support your cause, just ask me politely and I'll give you the money, straight-up, no commemorative key-chain required in return.

But this is different. The Richmond Symphony is holding a Music Marathon and yes, they want you to sponsor a musician, with donations going to symphony programs and general operations. It's happening Saturday, February 14, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Nordstrom's in Short Pump.

Why is this different? Because RSO invited the participation of anyone. This is a day when the "Richmond" in "Richmond Symphony Orchestra" will matter more than the "Symphony."

Lots of young people in their youth orchestra program will perform. Music teachers. College students. The Happy Lucky Combo. Me!

My older daughter and I will perform a Bach minuet as a violin/cello duet, and my friend Nina Conway and I will perform a canonic sonata by Telemann as a cello duet. If you'd like to sponsor either or both of our performances--pledge $1, $5, $50--send me an email at

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Acts of Faith... and other factors

Last night I attended the preview event for this year's Acts of Faith theater festival, and even though only 7 of the 14 participating productions actually presented bits of their plays, it was enough to whet my appetite and make me wish I had more time, money and reliable babysitters.

The two I'm absolutely not going to miss are Richmond Shakespeare's production of "Amadeus" and Barksdale's "Children of a Lesser God"-- but I would also love to see JFT's "The Chosen," Henley Street's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Swift Creek Mill's "Of Mice and Men" ... actually nearly all of them look promising.

Rock Me
Afterward, I asked Mozart (Mike Hamilton) what the musical plans for "Amadeus" were, because I was curious whether Richmond Shakespeare and director James A. Bond would filter some 20th/21st century music into the production as a way of adding shades of understanding to the play.

Mike, who's not a piano player himself, said he didn't know, but said he'd been looking into hip-hop music, as part of his character study, because it seemed like there might be parallels to uncover, including the tendency of the music industry to promote very young musicians as stars.

So Long, Cymbeline
During the preview, RS's Grant Mudge announced that the spring production would not be "Cymbeline," as planned, but "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He cited, first, "economic" reasons--meaning, I suppose, though he didn't say so, that not enough people would buy a ticket for a Shakespeare play they hadn't studied in high school. He also said that because RS has never performed "Midsummer" indoors, and because they'll be moving to the new, larger Center Stage theater next year, they wanted to do it in the intimate, warm wooden chapel of 2nd Pres. church.

That sure sounds like post facto justification to me. I'm sure "Midsummer" will be jolly and pretty --but heck, it always is. I was really looking forward to "Cymbeline," which I've never even read, let alone seen.

(I'm reminded of six years ago, when the Richmond Symphony quietly substituted Beethoven's 5th for the more-costly-to-produce Mahler's 3rd. If I remember correctly, it was their last Masterworks concert in the Carpenter Center before the two-year interruption for construction.... )

There's a wry comment waiting backstage about "Cymbeline" and acts of faith, but I'll sigh and understand. This midsummer night's dream better be psychadelically outstanding, though.