Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Repeat Button

Tim Smith, classical music critic at the Baltimore Sun, in a review of a performance of David Lang's "A Little Match Girl Passion," writes:
The only disappointment, given the roughly 40-minute duration of the composition, was that it didn't get performed twice. I'm sure the sold-out crowd would have gladly stayed for a complete encore. 

I'm glad to hear of someone else who thinks this is a good idea. A single listen is not really enough for most new music and music that isn't performed frequently. A repeat encore performance would give the audience more time to really listen to the music.

Oh-- you noticed that I used the word "most"? I'm thinking about how I read new poems twice, once for feeling and once for a little more discovery--except that I don't read everything twice. I can decide quickly, and for myself, whether I think a poem is worth repeating. It's a different situation in a concert hall, where a conductor or an ensemble must usually make that decision in advance, regardless of audience reaction, being aware that some people trapped in the middle of rows won't want to hear a piece again.

I say what the heck, just play new works under 8 minutes long twice no matter what, and at least consider it in other cases. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Central Virginia's Salvation Army School of Performing Arts

Matt Sims turned a corner in the maze of basement hallways in the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club. Suddenly, a girl appeared at his elbow.

“Now?” she asked.

“Not yet, Naomi,” he said.

She lingered a moment, then drifted into a nearby room where a dozen kids practiced footwork in a hip-hop dance class.

Matt is the director of the Central Virginia Salvation Army's School of Performing Arts, a program that gives free music and dance training to kids in the greater Richmond area. It was a sunny Thursday afternoon in late fall, and the Boys and Girls Club buzzed with elementary and middle school kids doing homework, talking about doing homework, eating a hot meal, messing around, dancing, talking about dancing--and one persistent girl in glasses waiting for something else.

Matt was showing me around the rooms the arts program uses inside the club. I was on assignment for the Times-Dispatch, writing an article which would run in advance of an upcoming Salvation Army Christmas concert. (The article ran Monday.

He led me back into the Instrumental Room, smaller than my sister-in-law's master bathroom, where several keyboards shared space with drums, milk crates filled with tap shoes, and a laundry basket with a packages labeled "Trombone Maintenance Kit." 

We talked about the school's work a bit more, then Matt said with a half-grin, “If you want, the kids would love to perform on drums."

He stuck his head out of the room and flagged down a passing child to go round up the percussion students. Within a minute, Naomi popped in, along with three boys. Soon, each sat on an upended 10-gallon bucket, with another in front for drumming.

Matt settled down on a bucket. “Do you remember your parts?” he asked. After a quick review, he pointed at Gerald, the youngest, to set the beat. Music from the dance class down the hall worked at cross-purposes with Gerald, and Naomi looked up at me and pointed her chin at the door.

"Close that," she said. "It's distracting." Just straightforward, assured.

One by one, each child entered with a different rhythm. Matt led them through a tempo change and a few call-and-response shouts. Gerald bit his lower lip in concentration, Justin dragged sometimes. Brandon wavered between confidence and hesitancy, but Naomi was bright and on. 

After the performance, I asked each kid to tell me about why they like drumming, or something along those lines. That's when I learned a bit about Naomi's family, which is in the T-D article. I bet there's much more to her story. Naomi strikes me as being a natural achiever; I really hope her story keeps on going, and whether or not music is always central to it, music seems to be having a crucial role right now.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Virginia Opera: Cosi fan tutte

Confession: I am new to Virginia Opera. (The Times-Dispatch's regular freelance reviewer, Roy Proctor, was out of town, so I took on the post-Thanksgiving show.) But after this experience, I plan to return, and Lilian Groag's name will be an incentive. I'd like to see how she works with other operas.

I only wish VO would stretch a bit out of the canon. I guess it has figured out what works with the audiences it has, and has calculated there aren't any other audiences to be had (in profitable enough sizes). Some day, some day, I will get up to D.C. or elsewhere for opera that is my age or younger.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Seasons Project: Venice Baroque Orchestra, Robert McDuffie play Vivaldi and Glass

My review of this performance, here.

This concert was the perfect confluence of performers, composers and space. I left ready to swear off  full-sized orchestras forever. No matter how talented the conductor or phenomenal the orchestra, the energy of a small, self-led group is unmatchable.

And though I can't extrapolate, this particular performance of the VBO was superior to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's Modlin Center performance last year, at least in terms of ensemble-playing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

RSO Masterworks: Shatin, Dvorak, Saint-Saens, Copland

My review of this past weekend's RSO Masterworks concert ran in Monday's Times-Dispatch. Shatin's "Jefferson, In His Own Words" was the headline work; Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," Saint-Saens' Cello Concert No. 2 and Dvorak's Symphony No. 6 were also on the program.

Re-reading my review, I'm not sure why I felt I had to make the point that Baliles spoke clearly; that should be expected. What I wanted to say, but didn't have the brainpower to formulate properly on deadline, had to do with the simplicity of his delivery. He didn't over-inflect, and didn't need to; we weren't children gathered round a chair at storytime. As I listened, I took a few moments to imagine what it might sound like if he had crafted a more dramatic--or perhaps one might say a more musical--narrative style, and that made me even more appreciative of his choices.

Probably imprudently, I also imagined what else the Dvorak symphony could have sounded like--thus my review's closing comment. I don't know the sixth symphony well enough to know what has or hasn't been, or should or shouldn't be done with it, but it seems to me if you're going to pick a composer to rough up a bit, Dvorak is a good candidate. Take some risks, show me the difference between playing music and just performing it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Steven Smith and the Vision Thing

Richmond Symphony Music Director Steven Smith delivered the talk at this past Friday's "Eyes on Richmond" series. I covered it for the Times-Dispatch, but the article, which ran Saturday, isn't posted online. You can read it at the end of this post.

His 25-minute speech rambled around in the Great Plans territory. There was a jackalope sighting ("a vision that we'll be able to put an instrument into the hands of every single young person"), and several trailheads were spotted but not confirmed to lead anywhere (vague references to desirable partnerships with regional institutions).

Okay, so I'm being too clever. But listen to the questions people asked in the Q&A session afterward:

-What is a conductor really doing up on stage during a concert?

-How do you respond to potential donors who say that they shouldn't have to pick up the government's slack when funding for music education is cut from public schools?

-When the symphony is planning a whole season, how do you decide how much/which new music to program?

-If you were to write a symphony that incorporated both "Give me liberty or give me death" and "I have a dream," what would it sound like?

Also, I ran into an acquaintance the next evening who had attended the lecture. He said he wanted to ask how the symphony could make good on Smith's expressed desire to make concerts "accessible"-- for people like himself and his wife, who have three children. (He meant ticket prices, mostly.)

For the most part, these people sought concrete information. Whether or not that day's disconnect between what Smith wanted to say and what people wanted to learn is representative of anything larger, I don't know. (But of course the fact that I wrote that sentence means I think it's worth considering.)

Smith did mention specific things the Richmond Symphony could do to "energize the tradition" and bring people together: hold post-concert talk-backs, invite writers or painters to be guest artists, and do something with VUU (a historically black college/university), among other ideas. However, it was impossible to tell which items, if any, were actually being planned and which were probably long-distant or even pipe dreams.
I wish he had told a story from his own experience that supported his claim, "Arts bring us together as human beings to allow us to explore world in ways we might not have otherwise thought of."

And y'know, I do think visions are important. If you really do dream of putting an instrument in the hands of every child, hopefully you'll start doing it one child at a time. (The RSO's Symphony at School program, for which the Nov. 21 Come and Play event is a fundraiser, does some instrument donation, and the Richmond Concert Band has been doing it for many years..)

Here's the article as I submitted it:

In a world that seems to have moved beyond the possibility of civil discourse, the arts can be a way to bring people back together, said Steven Smith, music director of the Richmond Symphony. He added that Virginia, home of history's greatest political and cultural discussions, is a natural place to “recapture” a spirit of cooperation. In particular, the Richmond Symphony can bring people together using the medium of music.

Smith spoke Friday at the Eyes on Richmond lecture series held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. The title of his talk, “Richmond Changes its Tune,” was assigned to him, he said, and he decided to approach it from the perspective of a composer. 

When writing music, composers will change a tune by “playing around with it … turning it upside-down and backwards, taking it apart, playing with its structure or harmony.”

In that sense, the Richmond Symphony can change or “energize” its tune not by discarding a time-honored repertoire but by sharing music in new ways.

For example, it can program compositions that use influences from various musical traditions, create concert experiences that include art forms such as architecture, art and literature, and find community partnerships that result in “thought-provoking opportunities for everyone,” he said.

Smith discussed the importance of music and the arts in education. Participation in the arts can teach young people the same things as sports participation does, as well as nurture “creative health.” He said that arts institutions should be catalysts for promoting the value of the arts for learning.

Smith described three of the Richmond Symphony's education programs and said, “It doesn't have to stop there. I have a vision that we'll be able to put an instrument into the hands of every single young person” or give all children the chance to sing in a chorus.

To address the problem of polarization and the lack of civil discourse, arts institutions should use the arts to “explore aspects of critical thinking.” He added, “Arts bring us together as human beings and allow us to explore the world in ways we might not have otherwise thought of.”

The Richmond Symphony's challenge is to communicate this vision to new generations and a “much, much wider audience.”

Smith said he is looking forward to participating in the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, which he called an opportunity to bring people together. He also mentioned the orchestra's goals of giving more outdoor performances and creating more community partnerships, such as with Virginia Union University, MCV, history museums and other regional institutions.

“I believe the symphony can touch the life of every single person in this community,” he said. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Judith Shatin's "Jefferson, In His Own Words"

Here's my article about the upcoming performance of Judith Shatin's "Jefferson, In His Own Words" by the Richmond Symphony, with former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles as narrator.

In the article, I refer to "Rotunda," a quite different work of Shatin's (with Robert Arnold) that combines video, music, recorded sound and voices. Here's an excerpt from that piece.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Charles Rosen, victim of careless program notes

Generally, I think the discussion of applause at concerts is a horse that should go ahead and die, but the situation at Saturday's concert was so weird, I want to elaborate on a point I made at the end of my review, which appears in today's Times-Dispatch.

Here's a blow-by-blow:
-Charles Rosen takes the stage to applause.
-He performs R. Schumann's Intermezzo from "Faschingsschwank aus Wien."
-Silence. More silence.
-Rosen fidgets, takes something from his left breast pocket (glasses? but he's not using music), fiddles with it, takes something from his right pocket, puts both things back into the right pocket.
-He plays the opening chord of Schumann's "Fantasia in C," stops, grunts, fidgets and begins again.
-After the second movement of the Fantasia, a quarter to a third of the audience bursts into applause that lasts several seconds until people realize by Rosen's body language that he's not done.
-Rosen finishes "Fantasia," everyone applauds. Two rounds of bows, then intermission.

The absence of applause after the first piece was not because the audience didn't like the performance. I'll lay double my life savings on that.

Even though the program listing showed the Intermezzo, the program notes didn't mention it, diving instead straight into the middle of a discussion of the differences between the first published, revised version of the Fantasia and Schumann's original version. Dutiful note readers saw the titles of the 3 movements that Schumann originally gave the work (but no movements were noted in the program listing) and must have gotten confused about what was what. They counted three chunks of music, then clapped.

I'm still thinking about why I and other people who knew that the Intermezzo had ended didn't applaud. I guess I'm not used to being the first person to start clapping--I kind of like waiting a breath-length first--and then the longer the silence went on, the harder it became for anyone to be the first to clap. I started thinking that maybe other people knew something I didn't, like he was going to add the last movement of the Faschingsschwank.

In any case, the second half of the program probably erased the awkwardness of the first in the minds of most people. I'm just hung up on the program note thing, maybe because it's so fixable.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The two tenors of Tracey Welborn

First, here's my review of an August concert by the Richmond Chamber Players.  Even though I spent just as much space on the Clarke viola sonata as on "Ten Blake Songs" by Vaughn Williams, I was much more captivated by the latter. Tracey Welborn's voice was a perfect match for the music, words, oboe and space, which was a church sanctuary.

So I was looking forward to hearing him sing again, the tenor solo in Beethoven's Ninth when the RSO performed it in September. My review of that concert is here, but Clarke Bustard's has a more accurate analysis of what was happening with the Ninth.

My sense was that Welborn wasn't a good match with Kevin Deas, the bass. The first is wildflowers, the other lawn. And had the tempo been less "breathless," as Clarke notes, I think Welborn's voice wouldn't have given the impression that he was lost in the hall. I'm looking forward to hearing him sing again under different circumstances.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Erin Freeman's Advice for Conductors

In May, I observed Richmond Symphony Associate Conductor Erin Freeman give Bobbie Barajas, classical music director for WCVE, a conducting lesson in preparation for the symphony's "Celebrity Maestro" fundraising event.

In the course of the hour-or-so lesson, Erin said, in effect: If things seem about to fall apart, a conductor should direct her attention to the section of the orchestra that is doing things right, not the section that's struggling. The musicians pay attention to what the conductor is paying attention to.

This made immediate sense to me, in that way that feels like you've known something all along, but didn't know that you knew it.

On the surface, the principle is counter-intuitive: Shouldn't a leader help errants correct their errors? Why wouldn't this mean that the conductor should turn to the section that's having trouble, make sure they can see her beat, her face, and her gestures?

Musicians listen as much as they watch, which is one of the reasons Erin's lesson works, but I think the bigger insight has to do with where the true power of a leader lies, and how leaders can use that power most effectively.

As it happened, the very next week I subbed for two days in a classroom of kindergarteners. I deliberately tried to apply Erin's advice. I can't say it helped in any immediate, practical way (probably because the kids didn't regard me as their leader), but its validity was evident when, for example, I was reading a book to the class. Previously in that same classroom when I'd stop reading to (firmly, kindly) admonish interrupters, it would take forever to get through a book and even the listeners would start to lose focus. This time, I just kept reading, paying attention to the book and looking in the eyes of children who were listening. 

I don't know how far outside the concert hall this principle stretches. It's related to how sleight-of-hand magicians work, but isn't it more satisfying to reap insights from conductors of beautiful music than from sweaty men with cards on a TV dinner tray outside the second-run movie theater?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Metro Collection for 2010-11

This preview of the Richmond Symphony's 2010-11 season ran in the Times-Dispatch last month. At that point--which was after brochures had been printed and subscription sales started--the Metro Collection series had not been announced.

I just checked the symphony's website-- the Metro Collection line-up is now posted. This is the series that takes a smaller orchestra--a large chamber orchestra, really--to locations in the surrounding counties. Each of the Friday night concerts is in a different location, while the Sunday afternoon concerts are all at Randolph-Macon College.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"Now I'm suddenly hungry for beef"*

I once worked at an establishment that was next to a McDonalds and across the street from a little Jamaican restaurant. The McDonalds was often so busy at lunch time that what it served was neither fast nor, you might argue, food. On the other hand, I could walk into the Jamaican restaurant and out five minutes later with a veggie or meat pocket and a freshly made pineapple-banana smoothie. The cost was no different than a comparable amount of food at McDonalds. It was probably healthier, although the pockets were made with fried dough... mmmm.

Why were people willing to wait longer at McDonalds? Because they knew what they were getting.

"How do you know what you'll like if you won't even try anything?" asked Father.

Well," said Frances, "there are many different things to eat, and they taste many different ways. But when I have bread and jam I always know what I am getting, and I am always pleased."
Familiarity may breed contempt, but usually it first inspires loyalty. When we're busy, when we have to spend money, when we're tired, we don't want surprises.

Not that orchestras want to be like McDonalds, except, you know, it'd nice to be profitable.

At the first Lollipops concert this year, the Richmond Symphony performed "The Composer is Dead," written in 2006. It was sort of well attended. At the second Lollipops concert, they performed "Peter and the Wolf." The concert hall was nearly full. 

So Frances' parents start feeding her nothing but bread and jam.

"Aren't you worried that maybe I will get sick and all my teeth will fall out from eating so much bread and jam?" asked Frances.

"I don't think that will happen for quite a while," said Mother. "So eat it all up and enjoy it."

(That's my favorite line.) By the end of the book, of course, Frances is eating "cream of tomato soup,... a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread... celery, carrot sticks, and black olives, and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery. And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries. And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles."

If only it were so simple for orchestras.

The League of American Orchestras recently started a discussion site, where you can spend days reading various thoughts on--to grossly oversimplify-- what's wrong with orchestras and what to do to fix them. It's all very interesting, if not a little discouraging, once the reality sinks in that there is no single right answer.

While it's true that most people crave familiarity--and this applies to both the music and the concert-going experience (for whom is sitting quietly in a darkened hall feeling nervous about when to clap a familiar experience?)--I'm not suggesting that orchestras should only program Mozart or that they must rely on so-called big-name soloists to get attendance figures up. (Gil Shaham? Big name to maybe 7% of the U.S. population. Have some perspective.) I'm not actually suggesting anything, except that it would be foolish to forget the power of familiarity. Knowing what to expect gives a feeling of control to the lunch-eaters and the ticket-buyers--who wants to feel helpless and adrift?

Okay, a little suggestion. Post video clips--as long as is legally allowed, up to 4 or 5 minutes each-- of all the pieces on a program at the beginning of the season or as soon as possible. Show the November clips in the lobby during your October concerts. Put them on YouTube and start forwarding. Those depraved, money-making Hollywood folks may have hit on a good idea with their previews. [UPDATE: Not long after I wrote this, I learned that musicians' union restrictions would prevent such a plan. Somebody else can get into union territory... not me.]

*The title of this post is a quote from local Fox News anchor Ryan Nobles, who was the MC for the Richmond Symphony's "Celebrity Maestro" concert in May, after Susan Greenbaum conducted "Hoe Down" from Copland's "Rodeo."  (Watch the first 15 seconds of the linked video--the woman who exclaims, "Yes! It is the beef song!" sounds so happy to be alive.)

Thursday, May 20, 2010


My review of Saturday's Masterworks concert ran in Monday's Times-Dispatch. To be honest, it was not a concert I looked forward to. "Chorus" and "organ" just aren't appealing words to me on a beautiful May evening. But as I listened to the opening work, "Rainbow Body," (which uses neither chorus nor organ), I could feel the day's tension leaving my  body; when "Gesang der Parzen" began, I thought, "Oh, that's right, I like Brahms!" And by the time the organ began playing in the Saint-Saens, I was completely relaxed and happy.

Mr. Van Pelt (see the comments below the review on the RTD site) contacted me personally to make sure I understood the location of the organ's pipes, which is pretty much directly behind the loudspeakers in the Carpenter Theater, hidden behind paneling, as pipes sometimes are. His correction clears up my confusion, and I was able to get more fascinating information from him about the Carpenter's organ-- for one thing, it's apparently made from parts of the organ that was originally in the building in the late 1920s.

I'm happy enough to blame Saint-Saens for writing an organ into an orchestral work; I think organs are best left to their own devices, of which they have many-- sort of the point, no? And I'm not going to spend the next 25 years grousing about the acoustics in the Carpenter Theater. It may not be the Schermerhorn, but it's no Dogwood Dell, either. (Plus, I've been to a concert in the Schermerhorn, in the balcony, and it was like watching a very good television. I'm fine with the middle ground between perfect acoustics and extreme intimacy that the Carpenter gives.)

The image, by the way, is of the only organ I've ever truly, truly appreciated. It's 25 years old this year and is installed in the chapel of Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas.

People who are far more dedicated writers than I am

I filed this story on journaling with this sidebar in response to an assignment. It ran on the cover of the Flair section in the Sunday, March 21, Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is why there aren't any men in the article.

I had a hard time finding a locally owned bookstore that sells journals, but discovered that Precious Memories on Idlewood Avenue both sells blank books and conducts journaling workshops. The shop is currently only open by appointment or for workshops (of various kinds) and I still haven't visited in person. I had seen signs for it, coming off the Downtown Expressway near the Kickers stadium, and had been curious about it despite the saccharine name.

I'm glad I called. It was an inspiring encounter with a woman who seems to be making her own way in the world, doing what she loves outside traditional models of success.

Before I made the call, however, I had asked the owner of another local bookshop--one not even a mile away--if she knew whether Precious Memories sold blank books. She had not heard of the store. This surprised me, and I was left to speculate why.

They Like Him

Here's an article about new Richmond Symphony Music Director Steven Smith. In print, it ran with a little sidebar that as I submitted it, went like this:

Steven Smith
In Four

1 Hometown
Toledo, Ohio

2 Schools
Eastman School of Music; Cleveland Institute of Music

3 Previous jobs (of many)
Assistant conductor, Cleveland Orchestra, 1997-2003; Faculty, Oberlin Conservatory, 2002-05; Concertmaster, Grand Rapids Symphony, 1985-88

4 Things he likes to do
Camp, garden, cook, study architecture

But the musical joke in the title was too subtle, so it ran without the title or the numbers.

Catching up on past reviews

From the Old News Department, created in response to the Insanely Busy Spring employment campaign:

Here's my review of the Richmond Symphony's Masterworks concert with violinist Elena Urioste playing Tschaikovsky Concerto in D and Erin Freeman conducting Higdon's "Concerto for Orchestra." Metaphors don't get any weirder than the one I used about two-thirds of the way in. I still kind of like it. I wish I had mentioned Ms. Freeman's excellent introduction of the Higdon piece from the podium: simple, respectful, enlightening, succinct. It was exactly the sort of speaking one wants to hear from conductors.

On the other hand, I wish I hadn't mentioned the applause after the first movement of the Tschaikovsky, even non-judgmentally. People can clap whenever they want, as far as I'm concerned, and I don't ever want to make someone feel like they broke a secret rule and shouldn't come back to the concert hall. Ringing, beeping, clicking and flashing electronic devices... that's a different story.

Next, here's my review of the Jupiter String Quartet's performance in the Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber series. Clearly the Bartok Quartet No. 4 was my favorite. Dvorak, though... Dvorak is like the band R.E.M. They're indispensable contributors to their genres. I like--love-- their music. Yet if I were asked to name the one really outstanding piece by either, I'd stammer. Jupiter put the "I Can" in the "American," for sure.

More Dvorak in this review of the first concert in the Richmond Music Festival. You can't tell from the online version that the performance was at the First Unitarian Church. The other concerts, unfortunately, were on weeknights and I just couldn't make it out to them.

I'm also glad to have attended many things I didn't review, including "Othello" and "Elizabeth Rex" from Richmond Shakespeare, as well as their staged reading of "Merchant of Venice." This was far more staged than the last one I saw, and thinking back on it now, two months later, I can scarcely see in my mind's eye the scripts the actors held.

I was the project manager for Richmond Shakespeare's Bardathon, which involved 74 high school students from 11 different schools doing "Twelfth Night." After rehearsing one or more scenes ahead of time at their own schools, they all came together to put on the play. Some scenes were set on a Caribbean island, some in a vaguely Transylvanian setting; one was set in the '80s, another in a proto-Victorian period. Totally charming.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Beaten with a stick

Here's my review of the Richmond Symphony's Masterworks performance on February 27, featuring then-candidate Maestro Steven Smith and pianist Jon Nakamatsu. (Berlioz, Beethoven, Shostakovich) Visually, a compelling argument for balcony seats.

Friday, March 5, 2010

"You hear the wood and felt and leather"

The quote of this post's title is from "Why You've Never Really Heard the Moonlight Sonata" by Jan Swafford, in Slate. The first chunk is about Michael and Patricia Frederick and their library of pianos dating from the 1790s. The second chunk is about how the construction, and thus the sound, of pianos has changed over the years, and how the physical piano probably influenced the choices composers made. The final three paragraphs analyze why there's so little diversity in piano sound these days.

Listen to the audio clips for comparison! There's one of VCU's Dmitri Shteinberg playing an 1877 Erard piano.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Richmond Symphony Names Director

It's Steven Smith.

Here's the link to my review of last week's Masterworks performance conducted by Smith. If I had had just a few more inches, I would have also mentioned the incredible pianissimos of the timpanist in every piece.

I had a few minutes on Wednesday and was near the downtown library, so I stopped in and wandered among the 800s of Mr. Dewey. My eye fell on a collection of letters written by the American poet Anne Sexton, so I picked it up and read here and there. This is one thing I learned:

In the early 1970s, Sexton convinced the Boston Globe to send her to review an Ella Fitzgerald-Count Basie concert on Cape Cod. Not only did the newspaper pay for tickets and a hotel room for her and a friend, they gave her 1200 words for the review.

Do you know how much easier it is to write 1200 words than 430 words?!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Exhibit: Artists in Exile

Below is news about an exhibit I've been helping to bring to Richmond. The images that appear will be in the exhibit, but I don't have the artists' names at the moment.

On Friday, March 5th 2010 at 7PM

Common Humanity Presents the Opening Reception of:
Artists in Exile:  Forgotten Iraqi Refugees in Syria
through March 25th in The Lucent Phoenix Resource Center downstairs at Gallery5.

Artists in Exile will showcase the work of 20 Iraqi refugee artists living in Syria.  All are professionally trained artists from Iraq (mostly from Baghdad) who had to flee their country because of the pervasive violence following the U.S. invasion in spring 2003.  The exhibit was organized by Common Humanity, a New York-based not-for-profit organization.

One of the featured artists, Ahmad AlKharkhi, will join us for the opening on March 5. By way of introduction, here is a short piece by NPR reporter Susan Stamberg which recently was broadcast on Morning Edition about Mr. AlKharkhi.

Gallery5 is located at 200 W. Marshall Street in Richmond and on the Web at Gallery hours are Wed. – Sat., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Without rights to formal employment, these artists -- along with some 1 million fellow Iraqis who fled to Syria -- are forced to eke out a marginal existence with the help of limited aid from international relief agencies, family members, and occasional work at minimal wages.

Each painting in the exhibit has been purchased directly from the Iraqi artist by Common Humanity. The sale of the paintings will help enable Common Humanity to repeat this process and therefore to continue contributing to the livelihood of these courageous refugee artists and their families. The paintings will be sold by silent auction with bids from the Gallery5 exhibit carried through to a second and final exhibit in New York which will end in late April. A box of 20 blank notecards featuring other paintings by artists in the exhibit will be on sale at Gallery5 for $20. 

This unique exhibit is an opportunity to not only showcase 22 paintings by Iraqi refugee artists, but also to help bring attention to the vast needs of the nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees who have fled to neighboring countries with the majority in Syria. Another 2 million Iraqis have fled their homes inside Iraq.

Mel Lehman, Director of Common Humanity who traveled to Damascus to obtain the paintings, said, “Visitors to this exhibit will get a rare chance to see something of the heart and soul of several of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria who have been largely forgotten by us. This exhibit presents a unique opportunity to see Middle East artists who were influenced both by their study of modern Western art in school and also by the U.S. invasion of their homeland.”
Common Humanity seeks to build friendship, understanding and respect between the United States and the Arab and Muslim world.  Common Humanity believe that the road to peace in these dangerous times is by moving past the stereotypes that separate us and by making efforts to gain deeper understanding of the common humanity shared by Americans with all of the people in the Middle East.  Art is one such way to do this. In addition to organizing these art exhibits, Common Humanity also organizes an annual medical exchange to Syria by bringing doctors of various specialties to give lectures to Syrian counterparts.

For more about the work of Common Humanity visit our website at Common Humanity is one of only a handful of U.S. agencies which have direct involvement in Syria.
Common Humanity wishes to thank the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Damascus office for its help in introducing it to the Iraqi refugee artists.                  

Why We Work

I bought this book at Narnia Children's Books yesterday. On the way home from school, my 6-year-old looked at it in the back seat. The first question she asked: "How much did it cost?"

"About $18" I said.

"Oh my gosh! That's a lot!" she said. There was a few moments of silence as she looked for the price on the slipcover to confirm that her mom wasn't lying.

"It's a hard cover," I said. "If it had been a paperback, it might have been around $8 or $10."

"Wow," she said, and then as if to herself, "Now I see why you need a job."

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Any Day Now...

.. and the Richmond Symphony will choose its new music director. Steven Smith will conduct this afternoon's Masterworks concert as the last of three finalists, the others of whom are Alastair Willis and Marc Taddei.

Oddly, I liked Smith much better last night (here's my review) than last year at his first appearance, while Taddei impressed me more at his first appearance than his second in January. (I just realized I haven't linked to that review yet. On my to-do list.) Then, he struck me as essentially conservative and unlikely to take exploratory risks. Possibly he simply thought that's what the audience and Board expected of him.

Willis had the advantage in September of conducting a megahits program to a sold-out house at the first Richmond Symphony concert in the new Carpenter Theatre. He's young, handsome and charming, has an English accent, and did a good job conducting. Did he do an absolutely top-notch job? Well... but is that even the question?

The question, of course, is who of these three has the whole package--meaning musical vision, the ability to sense the needs of the market, the charisma to be an effective ambassador to new audiences, etc. etc. This is not cynicism; it's what a music director does. All nine of the candidates had these qualities in different porportions.

I have heard, although only as second-hand news, that many of the orchestra musicians are disgruntled that Arthur Fagen wasn't a finalist.

One thing I don't know is whether Smith, Taddei and Willis were the selection committee's first choices, or whether it extended a finalist spot to someone else who, for whatever reasons, turned it down. It's possible.

I do know, however, that once the selection is announced and once the maestro settles in next year, most everyone in the audience will soon forget these two years of transition.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Virginia Commission for the Arts faces elimination by 2012

 The Virginia Commission for the Arts is a state agency that provides operational support for arts organizations and individual artists through a competitive granting process.

In light of Sunday's House Appropriations Committee vote to cut next year's funding by 50% and eliminate the agency by 2012, Virginians for the Arts, an advocacy group, calls for action.

Here's my letter to my delegate. I wrote a different one to the Times-Dispatch; may post it later.
Dear Delegate McClellan,
I have spent the past year being thankful that I only have to make tough money decisions that affect my own family, not the whole nation or the state, and I continue to repect the hard work of you and other elected officials who have to make these decisions.
Of course nobody wants to see any valued programs shrink or disappear, but I must speak up in particular for the Virginia Commission for the Arts, because I deeply believe that art both shapes and reflects our humanity. The arts are our common heritage and inheritance, not a luxury, and should be accessible to everyone.
VCA funding is crucial for the operation and programs of hundreds of arts organizations and civic entities around the state. The mission of most, if not all, of these organizations includes making the arts accessible to all people, regardless of income, background or education.
For example, Richmond Shakespeare, for which I am a volunteer, takes its educational workshops and performances to schools. Fees paid by students and schools more or less cover the cost of the workshop, but VCA funding helps support the position of Director of Education--one of only 2 full-time positions in Richmond Shakespeare--allowing her to create these programs, train the actor-teachers who lead them, and reach out to new schools and audiences, particularly in underserved populations. Without her, there likely would be no educational arm of Richmond Shakespeare.
To make matters worse, decimated funding for schools means arts education is in serious jeopardy. If the VCA is axed, arts organizations that could help fill in these gaps will not be able to offer affordable programs for students.
I could go on and on: for example, about how the economic impact of the arts is not just immedate (someone coming to a Richmond Shakespeare play supports the local actors and stage crew, the concessions workers, the building cleaning staff, the parking lot attendant), but also long-term, because the presence of vibrant, diverse, high-quality arts programs attracts businesses and residents and increases overall civic engagement.
Please take all these factors into account as you work on Virginia's budget. I ask you to preserve the existence of the Virginia Commission for the Arts and urge your colleagues to do the same.
Thank you,
Angela Lehman-Rios

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Beauty and the Machine

The Victrola was still several years shy of existence at the time of Cesar Franck's Piano Quintet in F minor, but its appearance in my review for the Richmond Times-Dispatch of the Shanghai Quartet with Yuja Wang makes metaphorical if not literal sense. I had never heard the Franck before and was struck by its idea, as I heard it, that the mechanical and the beautiful can co-exist, or are not any more different from each other than beauty and menace.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Orchestrating More Attendance

Suggestions, continued:

The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston offers on-site babysitting for ages infant through 10 with music and movement activities during its 5 p.m. concerts. The 5- to 10-year-olds "receive humorous instruction in audience etiquette and visit the concert hall for one piece of music." Parents have the option of extending care so they can get dinner out after the concert.

I think there could certainly be demand for something like this in Richmond for symphony matinees. Young musicians in the Richmond Youth Symphony Orchestra could be hired in a work-study arrangement --they'd get their orchestra tuition paid, they'd get experience in music education, the Symphony would get more families into concerts, kids would feel not so much like they were being ditched at home.

The Seattle Symphony offers musical birthday parties -- they've got Soundbridge, kind of like a children's museum dedicated to music. But there's plenty that could be done just with the space and resources at CenterStage. Any parent of a 3- to 10-year-old has likely taken their kids to jumping parties, rock-climbing parties, science parties, skating parties, mouse parties (or is he a rat?), art parties... are there Civil War parties around here? Probably. Anyway, the market's huge. The Richmond Symphony already has an arrangement with a Music Together teacher who teaches group classes... this could be expanded into parties, maybe. Or get music ed majors from VCU.

I'd bet money that the RSO has already discussed these ideas but need the funding/staff power to get them going and market them. By the way, I just saw on their website today that they are having open rehearsals, and free at that, but in sort of a field-trip format for high school and college students by reservation only.  

Harrisonburg's Arts District: Notes from the ArtWorks for Virginia Conference

Last week I attended portions of the ArtWorks for Virginia conference, including four sessions on creating an arts district. Two were for the a statewide audience; two were for Richmonders.  My conference summary article appeared in the Times-Dispatch. Here are some additional notes on the session with Harrisonburg's Brian Shull. 
  • Shull is happy about the fact that the James Madison University campus is included in the arts district. He sees JMU's near-finished $90 million performing arts center (image, above) as a complement to the downtown district. Parking is free inside the district; someone asked about JMU students taking up all the parking. "That's a good problem to have," Shull said first, then said, "We're looking at ways to alleviate that." Later he said that the existence of the district has helped JMU be part of the life of the town.
  • Parks inside Harrisonburg's arts district were rehabbed with private funding but are maintained by the city.
  • Shull touted a large new "upscale apartments" building right near the center square. (image, right) Someone later asked about affordable housing for artists. (This is an element of arts districts in some cities across the country but by no means all.) Shull said, "no specific housing for artists yet."
  • The tax incentives used to create the district are "not an entitlement" Shull said, referring to the time limits on the incentives. "Don't put too much emphasis on incentives," he said later. "Local government should help [arts orgs and artists] get over the hump, then let marketing kick in. I would have put more emphasis on marketing at the start."
  • He said there were no big tiffs about where the district's lines were drawn, who did or didn't get defined as an "arts organization" for the purpose of receiving benefits.
  • Someone asked him if he had anything negative to say about the process or the result. He said no.
  • Harrisonburg "has not done a thorough economic impact analysis yet."
  • The Two Most Important Things I think Richmond can learn from Harrisonburg, despite our differences in size (Hburg plus Rockingham County is 120,000):
    • Have a big plan, but don't expect everything to get done at once. Nearly 10 years into this, Hburg is still plugging along, working on streetscape projects, trying to get more retail into the district.
    • A city doesn't automatically benefit from an arts district. It must be marketed, and this is most effectively done when the arts council, the tourism board and the downtown renaissance group cooperate (or whatever the equivalent orgs are in one's own city). There were audible gasps in the audience (from Richmonders?) when Shull revealed that city government gives the arts council $40,000 a year for marketing. Rockingham County has given around $25,000/year. Marketing includes, of course, promoting the district to local visitors and tourists--but also to businesses and industry and grantmakers.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: World Premiere by Maxwell Davies and other music

My review of last Friday's concert at the Modlin Center by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra appeared in the Times-Dispatch. The heart of the program was "Sea Orpheus" by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, one of the six commissioned works for the orchestra's The New Brandenburgs project.

Monday, January 18, 2010

More on Orchestras and Tw... Tw... Tweeting (There. I said it.)

What first got me thinking about orchestras and tweeting was the news this past summer that the National Symphony Orchestra tweeted during performance at Wolf Trap --that is, the conductor, Emil de Cou, prepared program notes ahead of time and symphony staff released them via Twitter in real time. Audience members who wanted to follow the tweets sat in a special section. Washington Post writer Anne Midgette's article before the event is top-notch. I haven't found any real post-event analysis of the experiment from the NSO's point of view.

Mostly, orchestras have used performance tweeting to communicate with people who aren't in attendance.

The Edmunton Orchestra hired this guy to live-tweet during a performance in April. His link to his tweets didn't work, but based on the blog post I linked here, my impression was that he had a very "man on the street" approach. I'm guessing that in the long run, most people would want something slightly more informed.

In November, the Modesto Symphony allowed (or hired? I don't know the arrangement) Modesto Bee arts writer Lisa Milligan to live-tweet during a dress rehearsal. I'm sure this is happening elsewhere -- the Modesto thing happened to turn up high enough in an online search that I found it.

Item #3 in this post from the League of American Orchestras describes several social-media tactics that performing arts groups in Columbus have tried/are trying. Opera Columbus had a Tweet-up: live tweeting during a dress rehearsal for Opera Columbus. The difference here was that several tweeters were doing this at once, providing different perspectives on the music (or the general experience). Again, they had to sit in particular reserved section.

This post by an independent arts promoter and artists' rep delivers thoughtful analysis of her experience tweeting during a performance. Keep reading, and you'll read what David Lang and Hilary Hahn have to say about it, too.

Finally, I offer a caveat on my own suggestion on audience participation through Twitter: this is definitely a limited-time idea. It will get old fast, and any orchestra that tries it will have to be very alert to how it's working. Maybe Richmond isn't ready for it yet; maybe another city is. Maybe Richmonders will like it for half a season, maybe two seasons; maybe another city will like it 2 or 3 times a season for two seasons. Tweeting may be a fad; using online media is not. In any case, it's too easy for orchestras to fall into habits of thinking that say: Because we play music that's timeless, we can't associate with fads. 

Here's the final bit of Midgette's Post article:
What classical music audiences and administrators too often forget is that all these new technologies are mediums, not messages: How well they work depends entirely on how intelligently they're used in the service of what they're trying to communicate. The real point is that the message -- the quality of the music, not some watered-down version of it -- deserves to be disseminated widely, by any means possible.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Orchestrating Attendance: a few suggestions

Not surprisingly, the latest issue of Symphony magazine addresses the issue of declining audiences for live orchestral music. One worrisome finding is that "participation rates have been declining within each generation as they age. So Early Boomers in their fifties are participating less (11%-12%) than they did when they were in their twenties (14%)."

In other words, people don't automatically start going to the symphony when they hit age 50. Especially not now, when there's so much great stuff online, like this blog, on which I will share my ideas for getting more people in the seats at symphony concerts. They're nothing revolutionary, and I'm sure they've been discussed or even tried somewhere in the world.

-Reserve a block of seats for Facebook fans and Meetup groups. Sure, social networking online is hot, but that doesn't mean people don't like to see each other in real life. Promote the section through online networks and let people request season seats or single-concert tickets there. If I knew I'd be sitting near people I recognized, I'd be more likely to go.

-Encourage tweeting. Not during the performance, Sweet Judith, no, but the moment intermission starts, let people whip out their devices and remark on the concert so far. Project real-time tweets on screens above the stage, in the lobbies and—even better—above the bars. Really, no one's going to be asinine: this is Richmond "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" Virginia.

Public tweeting might even improve the quality of intermission conversation, as people, including non-tweeters, could use the comments to spark or focus their own conversations instead of falling into timid chat about the weather or grocery stores. After the performance, invite people to go to and vote for Tweet of the Night. Winner gets drink vouchers for the next concert they attend.
-Take the show online. According to research conducted by the League of American Orchestras, 40 million Americans listen to classical music broadcasts and recordings, including online. As a percentage of the population, this has increased over the past 25 years. Interestingly, people are more likely to  listen to classical music broadcasts/recordings than broadcasts/recordings of musicals, although the reverse is true when it comes to attending live performance.

If the Richmond Symphony streamed its performances live online for free, would people stop buying tickets for the concert hall? No. Most people who attend concerts do so because they know the power of live performance. Some people would take the cheap route, some people would turn into concertgoers as a result of being able to try out the experience online. Unfortunately, there's no way to know the net effect ahead of time. (This is probably also the kind of thing that would work in some cities but not others.) But geez, why not try it? And that way, Karen Johnson's Aunt Martha in Phoenix could see her perform every time. (I made that up.)

-Have open dress rehearsals. The Richmond Symphony Orchestra League used to run these, pre-peripatetic era. Now that the symphony is back in the Carpenter Theatre, it's time to start them up again. Heck, make it crazy and let people roll the dice to get their price, $2 to $12 for adults, $1-$6 for kids. Publicize them more widely than ever before.

-Door prizes, coupons in the program, referral discounts. I'm not entirely serious, but I'm not really joking, either. I'm trying to make the point that the orchestra experience is about the music, not about the image. Why should some tactics be considered low-brow if they work to bring in new listeners who have been reluctant to spend money on something they're not sure they'll like?

The Rose Ensemble: voices from the past, maybe

I was pleased to be assigned to review the Rose Ensemble's performance at the Modlin Center -- it wasn't a concert I had prioritized for review, since space is so limited for coverage of non-local, non-famous groups. Here's the link to my review of Wednesday night's performance. Please read and return here!

As it happened, earlier that day I had spent a good 30 minutes on YouTube listening to different performances of "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "Summertime" from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." The variety of interpretations was inspiring. I loved simply hearing the difference, for example, between Ella Fitzgerald's and Janis Joplin's voices.

I mention this as background to my assessment of the Rose's uniformity of vocal timbre, because this idea of variety was on my brain (although not specifically in expectation of the concert). Yes, they did employ subtle vocal differences among songs, and their stage presence (including expressions, gestures and body language) was notably communicative--maybe I should have made more of this in my review. But by and large, they were singing in what I think of as typical Western choral fashion: from the belly through the skull, O-mouths, warm sound.

Ensemble leader Jordan Sramek's solo on "Et Sha'are Ratzon," a Libyan Sephardic song for Rosh Hashanah, came closer in vocal sound to what I imagined several of the pieces on the program might have sounded like originally--a more penetrating, calling, upper-body quality-- and I liked it.

I tried to be careful not to say anything should sound a certain way--that's not the way I approach music, and in any case, the Rose Ensemble makes its professional decisions with far more information at hand than I have. I hope the point I got across was that at least one person is open to hearing sounds that are unfamiliar, foreign, ancient.

Here are two instruments I had the pleasure of hearing at the concert: the vielle, a 5-stringed medieval fiddle (at left), and the smaller rebec. We also heard an oud, harp, psaltery and 5 different drums.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Anticipatory Jubilation during the Dead of Winter

I'm only giving you the first 5 lines of this poem. You have to go to Poetry's website to read the rest


by Hailey Leithauser

Such green, such green,
this apple-, pea- and celadon,

this emerald and pine and lime
unsheathed to make

a miser weep, to make his puny
Read the other Hailey Leithauser poems while you're there, and please--do yourself a favor and read them out loud, the way poetry should be.


I missed posting this link to my review of the Baroque by Candlelight concert in December.

I was reminded of this concert this morning when a piece for flute and piano came on the radio. At once, I realized why the flute has never been a favorite of mine: it almost always sounds so prom queen, so toastmaster, so nice. The wooden traverse flute, on the other hand (such as we heard at the December concert), sounds more like a friend.

Picture this: a pale blue midwinter sky, seamed through with pin-straight jetstream and mottled with the fluff and lace of cirrus clouds. One's the sliver flute, one's the wooden.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Brahms' Requiem, Pools of Luck, and the Rainbow Connection

One of the Top Ten Moments of My Life so Far was performing Brahms' "Ein Deutsches Requiem" with a 100+ voice choir and full orchestra in a college gymnasium in the middle of Kansas. The setting, of course, is not the important part, although the fact that it was so ordinary made the transcendent power of the music even more evident.

I remember, maybe two-thirds of the way through the performance, coming to the awareness that (a) much time had passed but (b) it didn't feel like it because (c) I was sitting in a pure shining pool of good luck to be alive, making this music with 150 other people.

Ah... I hear a high horse stamping outside my window. It's delivering a copy of an editorial I once wrote about how great music is for impractical things like feeling good. The Monteverdi Choir has just finished singing the Brahms on my stereo, so I'll go get the epistle and reproduce it below for your pleasure.

When [the children's music reviewer] and I were discussing [the magazine's music-review column], the issue of “educational value” came up. Heavy-handedly, I said I didn’t want to use that as a criterion for review. So you’ll see albums rated on how good they are for dancing or relaxing to, how well adult ears might tolerate them and how good they might be for months or years of play.

Why won’t you see a rating for how educational a recording is? I have two strong opinions on this topic, and since they’re a little contradictory, I will explain myself.

First, I believe all music is educational. Second, I believe “educational value” is overrated.

Especially for young children, music is educational in the same way that play is: stealthily. Exposure to melody, harmony and rhythm—whether by Rachmaninoff, Raffi or R.E.M.—lays the foundation for understanding language, numbers and turn-taking. It also develops discriminatory listening skills and encourages verbal and motor expression.
Further, music is so deeply a part of our humanity that we learn things which are more essential even than counting or clapping in time. We discover our individuality and our likeness to others at an emotional level. ...   

Because this kind of learning is so hard to articulate and is non-quantifiable, I think it gets overlooked in favor of music’s more explicitly educational aspects. The value of playing Mozart to sleeping children can’t be quantified, either, but the potential benefits are usually described in quantifiable terms designed to make parents believe they’re creating geniuses by simply pushing “Play”: increased math skills, advanced reasoning, and so on.

Older children are subjected to music’s ability to accommodate lyrics about colors, weather, grammar, history, morality, insects, the alphabet and tooth-brushing. Now, I have nothing against Conjunction Junction, and I think music could be used as a vehicle for teaching classroom knowledge even more than it is.

But don’t place a higher value on this music than on, for example, the amazingly, horrifyingly, riotously uneducational music of Marvin Suggs and his Muppaphone! (In our house, we all love classic Muppet Show tunes. And sometimes, when the mood is right, I choke up over “Rainbow Connection.”)

“My Hair had a Party Last Night” by Trout Fishing in America—another household favorite—does not teach the importance of personal hygiene, thank goodness. Its only redeeming values are the great tune, the charming mandolin-picking, the bouncy bass thwacks and the funny lyrics.

Then there’s the classic craziness: “Here We Go Looby-Loo” or “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” What do they teach? Nothing!

So here’s to uneducational music! ...