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.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

James Wilson: Bach Cello Suites 2, 3 and 6

James Wilson began the Richmond Festival of Music 7 or 8 years ago when he lived in Richmond and played with the Shanghai Quartet, and the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, which presented this solo concert, is the current form of that project. I am a volunteer with CMSCVA.

For a Tuesday night performance of some of Bach's more esoteric music, this concert was remarkably well-attended -- proof, maybe, that once Richmond feels it has created a star, that star will always shine bright in our firmament.

Of course, Wilson IS an amazing cellist. I know all the Bach cello suites very well--but primarily through recordings. Hearing Wilson perform them live was revelatory. In his hands, each suite took on more personality than can be conveyed on a record or CD.

Wilson began with #3, a busybody of a work. He played it fast and thrillingly, but not melodramatically, like I've heard some recordings. The "Bourree" movement put me in mind of a beautiful hand-blown glass paperweight, perfectly formed and shining within itself. He played the final "Gigue" for a jokester, emphasizing the contrasts between heavy and light.

I've always heard Suite #2 as a cloudy-day piece, and I had been thinking of the first movement all day in anticipation. Wilson gave it even more complexity. Did you know dotted-note ryhthms could be sarcastic? You should his interpretation of the "Allemande." The "Sarabande" became a defiant youth who eventually softened and conceded kinship to the rest of the suite.

Bach wrote Suite #6 for a 5-stringed instrument that no longer exists. Playing the piece on a 4-stringed cello is hard. Wilson's sound was light and clean, with slightly slower tempos than in the other two suites. It occured to me--hearing this performance live--that this piece is somehow the most modern-sounding of the suites (they were written circa 1720) and the most early-music-sounding--while still unmistakably Bach-sounding.

Maybe because it was written for more strings, Wilson played #6 with more everything: the "Sarabande" was full of more love, the "Gavottes" and "Gigue" full of more dancing. But I think there was something else at work...

As a body of music, the Bach cello suites are like the 99 names of God, and a cellist can spend a lifetime meditating upon them, and will never learn the 100th name. They are simultaneously simple and demanding; infinitely renewable; enigmatic.

In his program notes, Wilson writes, "Because the interpretation of these pieces is so personal, when I perform them I feel more as if I am baring my soul than playing a concert."

This makes sense to me. I'm a cellist who has performed bits and pieces of Suites 1 and 3 (and let's be clear... I'm in the single digits when it comes to names of God). Before a Bach cello suite performance, the cellist worries: will they understand? But that is what the music itself is asking of the musician.

When a musician strives to truly, selflessly understand a piece of music, I think that's when the magic happens that makes the playing of it seem effortless to the audience. Tonight in the performance of Suite #6, even in the cunningly difficult last two movements, and more than in #3 and #2, Jim Wilson was making that magic. I think that love--which is not effortless--is somehow related to this, and maybe even works the same way.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Richmond Symphony: Sinfonia del Fuego

Think of a synonym for "piercing" but without any negative connotations, and you're on your way to describing the sound of the bandoneon. It's sort of like an accordion with a Type A personality. It's an instrument with a keen sense of purpose, that purpose being perhaps to lure you down the path into the sensual delights of both pleasure and anguish. It's the sound of the tango.

The Richmond Symphony was joined by Latin Grammy-winning bandoneon player Raul Jaurena, as well as members of the Latin Ballet of Virginia, for a Pops concert at the Landmark. RSO Candidate #4, Marc Taddei, conducted.

Jaurena and his 1905 bandoneon didn't force their way into the performance, though. He played 6 of the 9 pieces on the program, and 2 or 3 of those were short dance numbers with the bandoneon simply fronting the orchestra rather than explicitly soloing. I almost wished we could have heard more solo cadenzas, or whatever they're called when a bandoneon plays them.

My two favorite pieces with Jaurena were "A Media Luz" by Edgardo Donato--which began with a beautiful bandoneon/oboe duet--and "Adios Nonino" by Astor Piazzolla, which also had elegant, narrative choreography by Latin Ballet Director Ana Ines King. (Dancers performed on all the same pieces as Jaurena, with as few as 2 and as many as 12 on stage.)

The orchestra also played Piazzolla's "Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas"/"The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires," with Concertmaster Karen Johnson soloing--another standout piece on the program. Oddly, even though the full orchestra sounded a little lost in the too-big Landmark Theater, their best sound came during the parts of this piece (and a few others) when a small group of musicians played a passage, concertante-style. All the Piazzolla works (they also played his "Concerto for Bandoneon") were the most interesting to listen to, with a more complex structure than a straight dance tune.

Taddei--who planned the well-put-together playlist--seemed capable enough but not extraordinary. In general, the orchestra could have done the snappy parts a little snappier, but it really was a hard space to work in. More than anything, it was simply a pleasure to listen the music, to watch the dancers, to allow my imagination to wander all over the world, and then to walk the 8 blocks home in a gentle rain, hearing the bandoneon in my mind while the streetlights glistened in puddles and made dance partners of the shadows of bicycles and signposts.