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.