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.)