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Clarke Bustard
The Virginia Classical Music Blog
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James B. Stewart, writing for The New Yorker, examines in depth the crises in finance, artistic direction and labor-management-board relations that almost led to a shutdown last fall at the Metropolitan Opera, and continue to plague the largest performing-arts institution in the U.S. A very sobering read:

3 months ago | |
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Richard Spece conducting
with Marshall University Fife & Drum Corps
March 13, Monumental Church

Mannheim Rocket, Richmond’s new period-instruments orchestra, launched itself with several flourishes in one of the few public spaces in this country whose age matches the vintage of classical-period music and the instruments on which it was first heard.

Performing in Monumental Church, designed by the pioneering American architect Robert Mills and completed in 1814, the 24-piece orchestra of gut-strung fiddles, narrow-bore woodwinds, valveless “natural” horns and trumpets and kidskin-headed timpani delivered a highly assertive reading of Beethoven’s First Symphony, vividly showcasing the very different sonorities and tone colors of pre-modern orchestral instruments.

Curious thing about these early instruments: Their tone is thinner, more dry and less refined or “rounded” in sound than their modern descendants; but collectively they often seem to project more strongly, even aggressively. Some of the difference can be attributed to playing technique, especially stronger accenting; greater clarity and speed in quick figurations also boosts the energy level.

Slashing accents, hard drumbeats, more prominently audible wind and brass parts and high contrasts between loud and soft playing drove Mannheim Rocket’s Beethoven First. The piece, which when played by a modern orchestra tends to sound like a rambunctious cousin of Haydn and Mozart, here sounded like a pre-echo of the more grandly scaled, expressively epic symphonies that Beethoven would produce a few years later.

The ensemble’s performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, had a similar in-your-face presence and intensity, although indelicacies of tone production, balance and ensemble were more audible.

I sat in different parts of the church for the two symphonies, closer to the orchestra for the Mozart; so the differences I heard in performances of the two works were probably as much due to the acoustical peculiarities of this octagonal, domed, highly resonant space as to the different demands made on musicians by the two composers and how these musicians met those demands.

The string sections of the ensemble were minimal by modern standards – three each of first and second violins, two each of violas and cellos, one double-bass; but they maintained balance with winds in even the loudest passages, and carried tunes with more lyricism and warmth than might have been expected.

Mannheim Rocket’s conductor, Richard Spece, a clarinetist whose has played in period-instruments ensembles for two decades, showed a firm grasp of the music at hand and the capacities of the instruments in his band. His choices of when and when not to take repeats at times seemed unusual – the finale of the Mozart, for example, was about as long as the first movement; but repeats when taken were expressively differentiated enough to warrant the repetitions.

The symphonies were preceded by a set of early American, British and French marches and popular tunes, played by the Marshall University Fife & Drum Corps. Performing in Colonial-period uniforms, the ensemble produced an exhilarating sound that was room-filling and then some, nearing but not crossing the line to the deafening.

The corps’ director, Wendell Dobbs, credited by Spece as a prime instigator in the organization of Mannheim Rocket, traded fife for flute to play in the orchestra.
3 months ago | |
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The performance by eighth blackbird and the Sleeping Giant composers’ collective of the new work “HandEye” on March 16 at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center has been recast as a workshop “sneak preview” of four segments of the work, with the performers seeking feedback from the audience.

Tickets already issued must be exchanged for general-admission seating, with limited seating capacity. Ticket exchanges will begin at 6 p.m. outside the Modlin Center’s Jepson Theatre. The workshop begins at 7:30 p.m.

A performance of the complete “HandEye” will be scheduled in the 2015-16 season.

For more information, call the Modlin Center box office at (804) 289-8980.
3 months ago | |
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Critics at The New York Times speculate on prospective successors to Alan Gilbert as music director of the New York Philharmonic – attempting, it seems, to create a groundswell for the Finnish composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, formerly music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and more modest rumbles for David Robertson of the St. Louis Symphony and Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony:


The Guardian’s Tom Service, meanwhile, offers more detached ratings of prospective successors to Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic:


The Berlin musicians, who elect their chief conductors, will hold their first round of voting on May 11.

The New York Phil’s executives and board probably will be searching and dickering with candidates and their agents for some time.
3 months ago | |
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Sorry for the truncated broadcast. Electricity for the building housing the radio station was unexpectedly cut off. I will reschedule the interrupted Beethoven quartet and the Liszt piano pieces on a future program.

March 12
11 a.m.-2 p.m. EDT
1500-1800 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Glinka: ”Capriccio brilliante on the ‘Jota aragonesa’ ”
BBC Philharmonic/Vassily Siniasky (Chandos)

Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga: Quartet No. 3
in E flat major
Guarneri Quartet
(Newton Classics)

Schumann: “Gesänge der Frühe” (“Songs of Dawn”),
Op. 133
Mitsuko Uchida, piano

Dvorák: Polonaise in E flat major
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Antal Doráti (Decca)

Past Masters:
Brahms: Symphony No. 3 in F major
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
(RCA Victor)
(recorded 1957)

Janácek: “V Mlhách”
(“In the Mists”)
Piotr Anderszewski, piano (Virgin Classics)

Zelenka: “Hipocondrie”
Collegium 1704/
Václav Luks (Supraphon)

Beethoven: Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 (“Razumovsky”)
Cypress String Quartet (Avie)

Liszt: “Soirées de Vienne”
Schumann-Liszt: “Liebeslied” (“Widmung”)
Evgeny Kissin, piano (RCA Victor)
3 months ago | |
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Few American cities are as historically informed as Richmond. For years it has seemed that everything that happened here could be traced back to some event or personality of the early national period or the Civil War. Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis live on, and not just in tourist brochures.

Historically informed performance – playing pre-romantic music with the instrumentation and techniques of its times – has had a less stellar or consistent history in these parts.

University series presenting tourist artists have brought some period-instruments bands and early music vocal ensembles to town, but fewer now than 10 or 15 years ago. Summer concerts of early choral music with period-instruments accompaniment were staged for years at Centenary United Methodist Church, but that series lapsed into extended hiatus. In recent years, live performances on period instruments have been limited to the mid-winter baroque concerts of the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia and recitals on historically modeled organs.

Other than organists and some wind players, few local musicians playing modern instruments have demonstrated much interest, or competence, in adopting the performance techniques or styles of the baroque and classical periods.

Richard Spece, a clarinetist and conductor who settled in Richmond two years ago, makes a bid to raise Richmond’s interest in period-instruments, historical-style performance with Mannheim Rocket, a classical orchestra that will present its inaugural concert on March 13.

The ensemble will play Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major in one of the city’s most historic spaces, Monumental Church, Robert Mills’ Greek revival masterpiece, built as a memorial to the victims of the great Richmond Theater fire of 1811. The church, completed in 1814, is now surrounded by Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical campus in the Court End section of downtown Richmond.

“As we were planning our inaugural concert,” Space says, “a friend suggested Monumental Church as a venue with the historical cachet that would complement what we’re setting out to do with this orchestra.”

The musical and architectural vintages are roughly equivalent – the Mozart and Beethoven symphonies predate Monumental Church by about 20 years, but would have been considered contemporary, even cutting-edge, music in the cultural climate of the early national period. And the sound of the gut-string fiddles, narrow-bore woodwinds and valveless horns and trumpets played by the musicians of Mannheim Rocket would have been a familiar sound to listeners of the early 19th century.

The ensemble’s seemingly futuristic name is as historical as its musical mission. The Mannheim Rocket is a crescendo in which an arpeggiated melodic line quickly rises from the lowest to the highest instruments of an orchestra. It was among the innovations in orchestration spawned by composers of the Mannheim school of the mid-18th century. This effect animates much of the music of Mozart, Beethoven and other composers of the late-18th and early 19th centuries.

In organizing Mannheim Rocket, Spece recruited musicians from as far afield as Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Most have been colleagues he has performed with in period-instruments ensembles over the past 20 years, and many, he says, are playing this date gratis or for nominal fees, “out of love for the music and to promote historical performance.”

Mannheim Rocket’s tuning, A=430, is a quarter-tone flatter than that of a modern orchestra. The group is smaller than most classical-style orchestras, with three first violins, three seconds, two violas, two cellos and a double-bass, with pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, clarinets, French horns and trumpets, plus timpani.

The period instruments are tonally less brilliant and project less powerfully than their modern descendants, but their thinner, drier tone brings out details of articulation and quick figurations that can be obscured in the more resonant sonority of the modern orchestra.

“In a fairly intimate space like Monumental Church, I think these forces will pack plenty of punch,” Spece says.

After this week’s inaugural concert, Spece and associates will set out to raise funds and firm up organizational details to make Mannheim Rocket an ongoing endeavor. He hopes that the ensemble will establish a regular schedule of chamber-music concerts in fall and winter and orchestral programs in spring.

Mannheim Rocket’s inaugural program of Mozart and Beethoven begins at 8 p.m., with a pre-concert talk at 7:30 p.m., on March 13 at Monumental Church, 1224 E. Broad St. The Marshall University Fife and Drum Corps also will perform. Free parking is available in the Virginia Department of Transportation lot across Broad Street from the church. Tickets: $30; $25 for seniors and students. Details: (804) 491-6056; www.mannheimrocket.org
3 months ago | |
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Tito Muñoz conducting
with Stanislav Khristenko, piano
March 7, Richmond CenterStage

Tito Muñoz, music director of the Phoenix Symphony in Arizona, led a finely articulated yet sweepingly expressive account of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony in a guest-conducting date with the Richmond Symphony, obtaining one of the most successful performances this orchestra has given in recent memory.

The Schumann capped a Masterworks program that also introduced Richmonders to Stanislav Khristenko, a Ukrainian-born pianist whose tone production and phrasing often recalled the music-making of Emil Gilels.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, may not have been an ideal vehicle for Khristenko’s artistry; but his encore, Schumann’s song “Widmung” in Liszt’s piano transcription, showcased his technique and interpretive bent most persuasively.

Khristenko and Muñoz emphasized the proto-romanticism of the Mozart concerto, effectively reminding listeners of why this work (and “Don Giovanni”) remained popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries while the rest of Mozart’s music was rarely heard.

The pianist and conductor played up the concerto’s contrasts of turbulence and wistful dreaminess, but with rather murky articulation and blunted accents. In lyrical passages of the first movement, Khristenko seemed to be playing Mozart through the filter of Chopin. The performance was most convincing in the central romanza, paced as a fairly brisk andante and phrased lovingly. Khristenko used the familiar Beethoven cadenza in the first movement, and his own stormy yet witty cadenza in the finale.

He made the Schumann-Liszt “Widmung” the epitome of the nobly expressive German-romantic love song, elaborated with brilliant pianistic touches that, in Khristenko’s hands, never sounded excessive.

Schumann’s symphonies are difficult to pull off. His orchestrations are oddly balanced; for generations, they were thought to be so clumsy that conductors felt free to doctor them. (Gustav Mahler’s re-orchestrations were especially interventionist.) Schumann himself tinkered extensively with the Symphony No. 4 in D minor – chronologically, his second symphony – before its belated publication.

For this performance, Muñoz chose the standard Schumann revision and made it work, quite splendidly, without any noticeable retouching. As in the Mozart, the conductor made the contrast of portent and lyricism the crux of the music. Muñoz spun out long lines of melody and expression, maintaining continuity over four movements played without pauses. His handling of dynamics, notably in the transition between the third and fourth movements, was expert.

The orchestra delivered a surgingly passionate, technically almost faultless performance.

The dark moodiness of the Schumann and Mozart were pre-echoed in the program’s opening selection, Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, too slow and heavily textured for my taste but nonetheless well-played.
3 months ago | |
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The classical orchestra is born and comes of age: Richard Spece, conductor of Mannheim Rocket, a period-instruments orchestra giving its inaugural concert on March 13 at Richmond’s historic Monumental Church, joins me for an exploration of classical style and the orchestral configuration, forms and techniques that developed in the second half of the 18th century.

March 5
11 a.m.-2 p.m. EST
1600-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

C.P.E. Bach: Sinfonia in E minor, Wq 178
Akademie für alte Musik Berlin
(Harmonia Mundi France)

Past Masters:
Carl Stamitz: Sinfonia concertante in A major
Franzjosef Maier, violin
Franz Beyer, viola
Thomas Blees, cello
Collegium Aureum (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)
(recorded 1978)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C major
I: Adagio molto – allegro con brio
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/
John Eliot Gardiner
(DG Archiv)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C major – IV: Finale: adagio – allegro molto e vivace
Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen (Philips)

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble/Marc Minkowski (DG Archiv)

J.C. Bach: Sinfonia concertante in A major
Stephen Schardt, violin
Joachim Fiedler, cello
Musica Antiqua Köln/
Reinhard Goebel
(DG Archiv)

Haydn: Mass in D minor (“Nelson”)
Susan Gritton, soprano
Pamela Helen Stephen, mezzo-soprano
Mark Padmore, tenor
Stephen Varcoe, baritone
Collegium Musicum 90/Richard Hickox (Chandos)
3 months ago | |
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The New York Philharmonic’s home in Lincoln Center, Avery Fisher Hall, named for the high-fidelity components mogul, will be renamed David Geffen Hall, as the popular-entertainment mogul – producer of recordings by The Eagles, Nirvana and Joni Mitchell and co-founder of the film-making firm DreamWorks – makes a gift of $100 million toward renovation of the hall, The New York Times’ Robin Pogrebin reports:


Renovation of the hall, whose acoustics have been faulted ever since it opened in 1962, is set to begin in 2019, at a cost currently projected at $500 million.
3 months ago | |
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Simon Rattle, who will step down as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018, has been named music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, succeeding Valery Gergiev. Rattle will take over the London podium in September 2017, The Guardian’s Mark Brown reports:


Rattle has been highly vocal in advocating construction of a state-of-the-art concert hall in London, which has been plagued for decades with dull-sounding and otherwise unsuitable venues for orchestral music. Whether his acceptance of the LSO post signals willingness on the part of London to commit to a new concert hall is naturally the subject of much speculation.
3 months ago | |
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