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Clarke Bustard
The Virginia Classical Music Blog
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The Richmond Symphony has received a $500,000 challenge grant for the acquisition and operation of a mobile performance space that will enable the orchestra to stage large-scale outdoor concerts.

The new structure, which will be used for classical and pops concerts, advances the symphony’s strategic plan “to expand our footprint . . . to serve new audiences,” says David Fisk, the orchestra’s executive director. “It is a ‘big-tent’ approach to music-making in every sense.”

The grant, from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, will finance the purchase of a Warner Shelter Systems Limited SA-80 Arabesque tent, large enough to accommodate the full 70-member complement of Richmond Symphony musicians, the 150 singers of the Symphony Chorus and guest soloists. It will be one of the largest mobile concert structures in the eastern U.S.

Matching funds from the grant, which must be raised by November 2015, will finance operation of the unit for its first five years.

The symphony is exploring partnerships with local governments, other non-profit organizations and civic groups to stage concerts using the mobile stage, potentially as soon as September 2015.
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Virginia Opera
Adam Turner conducting
Nov. 21, Richmond CenterStage

Virginia Opera’s current production of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “H.M.S. Pinafore,” in the first of two Richmond performances, proved rather slow in achieving lift-off.

That’s partly the fault of its creators, who devote much of the first act to introduction of lovelorn and otherwise
put-upon characters. “Pinafore” doesn’t really get going until the arrival of Sir Joseph Porter, the buffoonish First Lord of the Admiralty (“ruler of the Queen’s Navee”), accompanied by his sisters, his cousins and his aunts, who helpfully flesh out what had been an all-male chorus.

Jake Gardner makes a hearty meal of the role of Porter, relishing the character’s pomposity and cluelessness, and injecting the first real jabs of satire into a show that pokes merciless fun at Victorian Britain’s class consciousness, jingoism and the presumption that figures of authority never – well, hardly ever – get things wrong.

On the lovelorn front: Cullen Gandy, as Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Rackstraw, the young sailor smitten with the captain’s daughter, and Shannon Jennings, as the daughter, Josephine, who is just as smitten with Ralph but can’t bring herself to commit to someone so low-born, even though the alternative is marriage to the preposterous Porter, complement each other nicely, both in earnestness of character (garnished with a bit of slyness on Josephine’s part) and purity of vocal tone.

Christopher Burchett, as Captain Corcoran, and Margaret Gawrysiak, as the peddler woman Little Buttercup, carry on their clandestine mutual affection more indirectly, yet bumptiously. Burchett seems a bit too intent on playing the straight man; Gawrysiak is less shy about bringing out the comic aspects of Buttercup.

The show’s putative heavy, Dick Deadeye, gets earnestly grumpy treatment from Matthew Scollin. He should be having more fun with this role.

The men of the Virginia Opera Chorus acquit themselves credibly, if not especially lustily, as the “Pinafore” crew. The female choristers (sisters, cousins and aunts) bring a welcome liveliness to the show’s later choruses.

Stage director Nicola Bowie crafts an unfussy staging that has the right look and makes the right moves, but somehow seems too dutiful to rollick.

Adam Turner, the company’s resident conductor, keeps the show moving, although at a more moderate than ideal pace, and obtains fine playing from the pit orchestra.

Virginia Opera’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” repeats at 3 p.m. Nov. 23 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $20.33-$105.93. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX). The show concludes its run with performances at 8 p.m. Dec. 5 and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax. Tickets: $44-$98. Details: (888) 945-2468 (Tickets.com). More information: www.vaopera.org
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In a comment appended to Norman Lebrecht’s post on the death of James Erb, Steven Edwards recalls a conversation he had with the University of Richmond chorusmaster about his famous “Shenandoah” arrangement (scroll down to fourth comment):


In the various conversations I had with Erb about “Shenandoah” over the years, he never disclosed that his arrangement was inspired in part by György Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna,” the rarified, at the time avant-garde, choral work made famous by its use, as a master-of-creation motif, in the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: a Space Odyssey.”

“Shenandoah” seems to be light years (so to speak) from “Lux Aeterna;” but such leaps of musical imagination would have been entirely in character for Jim Erb.
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Composer and music blogger Suby Raman surveys gender representation in the 20 largest U.S. symphony orchestras, finding that women form a minority of less than 40 percent in 15 of the ensembles. Only one of the 20, the St. Louis Symphony, has a majority of female musicians:


The Richmond Symphony (not in Raman’s survey) has 29 women on its 2014-15 roster of 65 musicians (not counting those on leave of absence), or about 45 percent. Among the majors, only the orchestras of St. Louis (53 percent) and Indianapolis (46 percent) have larger shares of female players. Women account for 44 percent of the rosters of the New York Philharmonic and San Diego Symphony and 40 percent of the Baltimore Symphony’s.

Raman also drills down to female representation in orchestral sections, with unsurprising findings that women are more highly represented among violinists and violists than cellists and double-bassists, dominate the ranks of flutists and harpists, and are sparsely represented among brass instruments other than French horns.

Other old news: Few female conductors work with big orchestras in this country. Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony is the only music director of a top-20 orchestra. JoAnn Falletta, music director of the lower-ranked Buffalo Philharmonic and Virginia Symphony, has guest-conducted a number of larger ensembles, and so presumably figures in Raman’s tabulation.

It would be interesting – and revealing? – to see comparative numbers for major orchestras elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere and in Europe and Asia.
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In a comment appended to Norman Lebrecht’s post on the death of James Erb, Steven Edwards recalls a conversation he had with the University of Richmond chorusmaster about his famous “Shenandoah” arrangement (scroll down to fourth comment):


In many conversations I had with Erb about “Shenandoah,” he never disclosed that his arrangement was inspired in part by György Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna,” the rarified choral piece made famous by its use, as a kind of masters-of-creation motif, in the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: a Space Odyssey.”

“Shenandoah” seems to be light years (so to speak) from “Lux Aeterna;” but such leaps of musical imagination were entirely in character for Jim Erb.
2 months ago | |
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A special program: The first hour features interviews with soprano Erin Vidlak, flutist Marie Fernandez, violinist Leslie Kinnas and cellist Kevin Westergaard, winners of the 2014 University of Richmond Student Concerto Competition, who will be performing with the University Orchestra, Alexander Kordzaia conducting, on Dec. 3 at UR’s Modlin Arts Center. To go with the interviews, recordings of the works the young artists will play in the concert.

Nov. 20
noon-2 p.m. EST
1700-1900 UTC/GMT 
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

“Mr. Newman:” Sonata III in D major
Alexander Reinagle: “ ‘Lee Rigg,’ a Scots Tune with Three Variations and a Gigg” in A major
Olivier Baumont, harpsichord (Erato)

Handel: “Messiah” – “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion”
Lynne Dawson, soprano
Brandenburg Consort/
Stephen Cleobury (Argo)

Cécile Chaminade: Concertino, Op. 107
André-Gilles Duchemin, flute; Mario Duchemin, piano (CBC)

Saint-Saëns: “The Muse and the Poet”
Patrice Fontanarosa, violin; Gary Hoffman, cello
Orchestral Ensemble de Paris/Jean-Jacques Kantorow (EMI Classics)

Past Masters:
Bizet: “Carmen” Suite
London Philharmonic/
Thomas Beecham
(Dutton Laboratories)
(recorded 1939)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467
Fazil Say, piano
Zürich Chamber Orchestra/Howard Griffiths (Naïve)

Mason Bates: “String Band”
Claremont Trio (Tria)
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A celebration of the life of James Erb will be held at 11 a.m. Dec. 20 in Cannon Memorial Chapel at the University of Richmond.

Erb, the former music professor and choral director at the university and founding director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, died on Nov. 11.

The memorial service will include congregational singing, with music provided to those who wish to join, as well as quiet time for reflection.

Following the service, a reception will be held at River Road Church, Baptist, River and Ridge roads, near the UR campus.

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Nov. 15, Virginia Commonwealth University

If I were to hear a recording of the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s performances of Haydn and Beethoven from this Rennolds Concerts program, I would probably say, “Holy moly, that’s raw!”

Violinists Geoff Nuttall and Mark Fewer, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Christopher Costanza italicized just about every tonal, technical and expressive gesture in Haydn’s “Emperor” (Op. 76, No. 3) and Beethoven’s third “Razumovsky” (Op. 59, No. 3) quartets. Slashing accents; brisk, going on headlong, tempos; high-relief voicings of individual string parts; turbulent phrasing; flourishes and climaxes almost spinning out of control – anything and everything, it seemed, to convey passion, excitement and immersion in the music.

Nuttall conveyed that engagement physically, as well, writhing and dancing at the edge of his seat through much of the concert. The lanky violinist’s movements and facial expressions at times looked like Lyle Lovett channeling Jim Carrey. That, plus the tone of his onstage comments, plus the hipster silver shoes, made it clear that Nuttall is determined to blow away the stuffy stereotypes of chamber music. Mission accomplished.

This wasn’t a recording, but a concert performance, and in such a one-off experience most of the St. Lawrence’s excesses proved persuasive, even captivating.

More so in the Beethoven than in the Haydn: The former is full of high tension, stormy outbursts and unsettled calms, concluding in a famously frenzied fugue; the latter expresses its passions with less overt volatility, and with soulful nobility in the “Emperor’s Hymn” variations of its slow movement.

Those qualities, missing in the “Emperor,” came out gratifyingly in the concert’s encore, the slow movement from Haydn’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 20, No. 1.

The ensemble settled down, physically and expressively, in Osvaldo Golijov’s “Qohelet,” which the Argentine-born composer wrote for the St. Lawrence Quartet in 2011.

According to Golijov, this two-movement work was “inspired by some of the teachings and poetic images in Ecclesiastes.” The piece is largely meditative, built of layered, repetitive figures; like most such music, it either insinuates itself into the listener’s consciousness or seems to meander uneventfully toward an innocuous destination. The quartet performed with intense concentration and commanding quiet.

If this evening was representative of the way the St. Lawrence presents itself and makes music, then the group has joined the ranks of classical performers whose artistry is unparalleled but often untidy. Distinguished company, to be sure – the likes of Cortot, Mengelberg, Elman, Casals, Furtwängler, Callas and Bernstein; but you don’t really get what they’re about unless you see and hear them live.
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Steven Smith conducting
with Tom Schneider, bassoon
Nov. 13, Richmond CenterStage

Tom Schneider, who joined the Richmond Symphony as its principal bassoonist in 2012, is making his debut as a concerto soloist this weekend, and he’s starting on a high note – a bunch of high notes, in fact.

Schneider is playing the Bassoon Concerto (1999) by Peter Schickele, whose comic persona, P.D.Q. Bach, overshadows his compositional career. Schickele the comedian pokes fun at classical music, its conventions and pretensions. Schickele the composer has fun with classical music, using its forms to frame a style that draws liberally from folk and popular idioms, and often to spring surprises and to concoct sophisticated musical jokes. He’s America’s Haydn.

The Bassoon Concerto is prime Schickele, written for the instrument he played as a young performer (in the pit band for “Oh! Calcutta!” among other settings), filtering Americana from blues to balladry to be-bop through a form closely related to the suites and early concertos of the 18th century.

The bassoon, whose role in orchestrations is generally supportive and coloristic, here becomes a lead singer, with a surprisingly smooth and melodic, and perhaps even more surprisingly high-register, voice. Through much of the piece, it could be mistaken for an alto saxophone.

In the first of two performances, in the symphony’s Rush Hour series of mini-concerts in Richmond CenterStage’s Gottwald Playhouse, Schneider audibly relished the lyrical opportunities that the composer gives the bassoon – notably in the opening “Blues” and fourth-movement “Song” – as well as the concerto’s technical twists and turns.

Conductor Steven Smith and the orchestra, paced by percussionist Clifton Hardison and pianist Russell Wilson, supported Schneider admirably and rendered Schickele’s animated, cheerful orchestration in high relief.

Schneider is only the second bassoonist to play the Schickele concerto in concert. (Schneider’s teacher, George Sakakeeny, premiered the piece and performed it on six other occasions.) Considering the sparsity of bassoon-and-orchestra repertory, and the abundant delights of this music, its neglect is baffling.

Good cheer resonated through the rest of this program, in excerpts from David Diamond’s “Rounds” (1944) for string orchestra and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major.

Smith led the symphony strings, the violinists and violists performing while standing, in a merrily percolating reading of the richly layered yet sonically transparent first movement of “Rounds.” The strings were sonorous lead voices in the larghetto of the Beethoven, one of this composer’s most lyrical symphony movements, while the full orchestra played up the high spirits of the symphony’s finale.

The program will be presented in full at 3 p.m. Nov. 16 in Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St. in Ashland. Tickets: $20. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);www.richmondsymphony.com
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James Erb, longtime music professor and choral director at the University of Richmond and founding director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, has died at the age of 88.

Erb came to the University of Richmond in 1954 and led its choirs until his retirement from the UR faculty in 1994. He was a three-time recipient of the university's Distinguished Educator Award.

Several generations of alumni of his college choruses are active as singers, teachers and church musicians throughout the region.

“James Erb’s pervasive influence on Richmond’s musical scene cannot be exaggerated,” writes John McKay, a student of Erb’s at UR. “[H]e was a consummate musician whose mastery of choral techniques enabled him to inspire, cajole, and demand excellence from all of his singers.”

A scholar of Renaissance music and participant in a project to publish the works of the 16th-century Flemish composer Roland de Lassus (also known as Orlando di Lasso), Erb edited Lassus’ 110 magnificats.

He probably will be remembered less widely for that work, however, than for an arrangement of the folk song “Shenandoah” that he prepared for a 1971 European tour by the UR Choir. It has become a staple of the choral repertory in this country and abroad, has been recorded by many ensembles, including the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Chanticleer, and often has been used in films and other media.

(Erb liked to joke that royalties from “Shenandoah” financed many family vacations and “a certain amount of bourbon.”)

James Bryan Erb was born in La Junta, CO, to a family of educators descended from German Mennonite émigrés. He began singing in childhood, performing for a time as a boy chorister at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John’s in Denver. As a teen-ager he was a student of the pioneering female conductor Antonia Brico. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Colorado College, continued his studies at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien (Vienna), earned master’s degrees from Indiana and Harvard universities, and a doctorate from Harvard.

In 1948, he sang in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, performing Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis” under Robert Shaw’s direction. “It was a Pentecostal experience,” Erb recalled in a 2007 Style Weekly interview. “I knew this was what I had to do with my life.”

While he was organizing the Richmond Symphony Chorus, he prevailed upon the orchestra to engage Shaw to conduct Beethoven’s epic Mass setting in the chorus’ debut, which took place in December 1971.

In nearly four decades as director of the Symphony Chorus, Erb prepared the ensemble in most of the standard choral-orchestral repertory, as well as then-rarities such as Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s “Messiah.” He also conducted the orchestra and chorus a number of times; his last such engagement was in 2003, conducting Bach’s Mass in B minor.

He retired as the chorus’ director in 2007, but sang among the tenors when the ensemble marked its 40th anniversary three years ago in “Missa solemnis,” conducted by his successor, Erin R. Freeman, who holds what is now called the James Erb Choral Chair.

Barbara Baker, the Symphony Chorus’ manager, recalls that at first rehearsals Erb “occasionally asked for a show of hands from those who had never sung [the work] before. ‘How I envy you!’ he would say; they would have the experience of discovering a wonderful new piece of music. His enthusiasm and passion were infectious, and his rehearsals could be unexpectedly thrilling when the sound met his expectation of what the music required.”

“[T]hose of us who toured Europe with the University of Richmond Choir had the rare opportunity to witness Erb’s genius in a very personal way,” John McKay recalls. “We were the singers for whom Erb created his captivating arrangement of ‘Shenandoah.’ Throughout the weeks of preparation, we were there as Erb rewrote, refined and polished his creation at each rehearsal. During this process, a very special bond developed that has kept teacher and students close for over four decades.” 

By the time Erb founded the Symphony Chorus, he already was directing a non-collegiate choral group singing major repertory. In 1966, he led a reunion Chorus of Alumni and Friends of the University of Richmond. Opting to continue performing, adopting the acronym CAFUR, the group became a fixture on the Richmond concert scene for 28 years. Among other works, CAFUR performed the Bach passions (with its audience following the tradition of singing along in chorales), as well as infrequently heard pieces such as the Vespers of Rachmaninoff, the work the ensemble sang in its 1994 farewell performance.

Erb was the patriarch of one of Richmond’s most musically active families. His widow, Ruth Urbancic Erb, was a violist in the symphony for more than 40 years; his son, Martin G. Erb, is an active choral singer; and his daughter-in-law, Hope Armstrong Erb, is a pianist and director of the Greater Richmond Children’s Choir.

A memorial service for James Erb will be scheduled later. Memorial donations may be made to the Richmond Symphony Chorus, the Greater Richmond Children’s Choir or the charity of your choice.

David Fisk, the symphony’s executive director, recalls “meeting Jim Erb soon after I became executive director and was immediately taken by his fierce passion and consummate musicianship. . . . [H]e was, above all else, a musician, whose good opinion one wanted to earn and to keep. We will miss him very much, but his legacy in Richmond and his reputation in the field of American choral music will live on forever.”

Fisk says the orchestra will plan a memorial concert for Erb next season, featuring “a piece that he particularly loved.”

An especially fine performance of Erb’s “Shenandoah” arrangement, sung by the Choir of New College, Oxford:


Erb relates “part of the story of my life” in this excerpt from a documentary made by John Moon of LifeJourney Films:


* * * 

UPDATE (Nov. 12): More tributes to James Erb from his successor and past and present music directors of the Richmond Symphony:

– Erin R. Freeman (director, Richmond Symphony Chorus): “One of the final pieces [Erb] prepared with the Richmond Symphony Chorus was the Brahms Requiem.  I distinctly remember sitting in the audience, poised to take over the legacy that he created, in awe and fear of the task at hand.  Since then, however, I have learned that Jim, through his attention to detail, determination, and musical integrity, set up his legacy in such a way that, as the final movement of the Brahms’ says: he may now rest from his labors, as his work will follow after him.”

– Steven Smith (Richmond Symphony music director): “[Erb’s] love for the collegiality of the chorus, his wealth of experience and sincere and deep commitment to every moment of the music was truly inspiring.  His legacy, not just here in Richmond but in the wider world of music will always be remembered with profound love and respect.”

– Jacques Houtmann (symphony music director, 1971-86): “What a great man, a great musician [Erb] was. . . . I will never forget how he was able to generate such an energy in order to convince the [chorus] to give the best in the vast repertoire he was involved in.”

– George Manahan (symphony music director, 1987-98): “The Richmond Symphony was blessed to have the charismatic leadership of my friend and colleague Jim Erb for so many years.  We performed some of the most challenging choral masterpieces in the repertory, including Bernstein, Walton, Messiaen, Brahms, and Verdi among others.  Never did I think there was a work too tough for the symphony chorus with Jim at the helm.”

– Mark Russell Smith (symphony music director, 1999-2009): “I count the many collaborations with Jim and the incredible chorus he created among my most cherished artistic memories of my tenure in Richmond.  He was a man of great passion and integrity, and brought every ounce of his being to bringing music to life for both his chorus and his audience.  We are all richer musicians and human beings for having had the privilege of working with Jim.”
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