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Clarke Bustard
The Virginia Classical Music Blog
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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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Nov. 13
noon-2 p.m. EST
1700-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Johann Strauss II: “Wine, Women and Song”
(arrangement by Alban Berg)
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Past Masters:
Beethoven: Cello Sonata
in A major, Op. 69
Emanuel Feuermann, cello; Myra Hess, piano
(EMI Classics)
(recorded 1937)

Ligeti: “Concert Românesc”
Berlin Philharmonic/
Jonathan Nott (Teldec)

Lassus: “Missa pro defunctis” – Agnus Dei
Hilliard Ensemble (ECM)

trad.: “Shenandoah”
(arrangement by James Erb)
Susquehanna Chorale/Linda L. Tedford
(John Mark Records)

Lassus: “Missa pro defunctis” –
Antiphona: “In paradisum”
Hilliard Ensemble (ECM) 

Ravel: Introduction and Allegro
Ensemble Wien-Berlin
(Sony Classical)

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major
Philippe Quint, violin
Sofia Philharmonic/
Martin Panteleev
(Avanti Classic)

Gonzalo Grau: “Five-Legged Cat”
Brooklyn Rider (Mercury)
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Musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have reached a settlement with the orchestra and its corporate parent, the Woodruff Arts Center, ending a lockout of the musicians that began 2½ months ago.

The new four-year contract, negotiated with the participation of federal mediators, calls for a 77-member orchestra in the first year, with a “goal” of 81 players in year two, and “commitments” to complements of 84 musicians in year three and 88 “by the end of year four,” according to a statement released by the Atlanta Symphony.

Musicians’ salaries will increase by 6 percent over the four years. They agreed to pay higher premiums for their healthcare plan.

“Over the last several difficult weeks of negotiations, both sides recognized that we all share the same goals and aspirations,” Virginia A. Hepner, chairman and CEO of the Woodruff Center, said in the statement. “[W]e all want a world class orchestra that the musicians and city are proud of and one that has long-term financial stability. We believe this new agreement is one that will allow us to achieve those goals.”

“This agreement brings the restoration of a harmonious relationship within everyone’s grasp based on work we must do together to restore missing positions in the Orchestra while stabilizing and advancing the financial position of the Woodruff Arts Center and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra,” said Paul Murphy, the orchestra’s associate principal violist and president of the musicians’ negotiating team.

The symphony’s board has committed to “additional, extraordinary financial support [that] gave us important flexibility as we finalized the new agreement,” Hepner said. The orchestra, which has operated in the red for 12 years running, ran a $2 million deficit on an operating budget of $37 million in its 2014 fiscal year, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Atlanta Symphony will launch its 70th anniversary season on Nov. 13 and 15, with Robert Spano, its music director, conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with soloists and the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, with concertmaster David Coucheron as soloist.
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Steven Smith conducting
with Richard King, French horn
Nov. 8, Richmond CenterStage

Interpreting romantic music is very subjective business, for the performer and listener alike.

How subjective? Well, consider this: Of the 29 movements in Tchaikovsky’s seven symphonies (Nos. 1-6 plus “Manfred”), only two carry an unmodified tempo indication. In all the others, the composer engages in the Italianate music-speak equivalent of “yes, but:” from the relatively straightforward allegro non troppo (fast but not too fast) to the likes of andantino marziale, quasi moderato (a bit slower than a walking pace and martial, sort of moderate).

In Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, highlight of the Richmond Symphony’s latest Masterworks program, conductor Steven Smith, faced with a succession of composer entreaties to modify tempos in the first two movements, settled on the old-time romantic formula of “speed up when loud, slow down when soft.”

This resulted in some felicities – resolutely brassy fanfares, lusciously upholstered waltzes, highly lyrical solos – but at high cost. The music meandered, with bursts of energy followed by interludes of quiet that threatened to dip into lassitude. The fabric of the orchestration frayed; melodies dulled; accompanying figures in the woodwinds leaped into undue prominence; tension dissipated.

These shortcomings extended into the scherzo, one of those aforementioned two movements with a straight tempo indication: allegro. Here, moderately paced string pizzicato lacked brightness (dare I say “pluck?”) while wind interjections sounded terse rather than playful.

The finale salvaged this performance. Tchaikovsky marked it allegro con fuoco – fast and fiery – and Smith and the orchestra delivered accordingly and brilliantly. So much so that at least one listener let loose an exclamation during the performance. A roaring ovation erupted after it was over.

Richard King, principal French horn player of the Cleveland Orchestra, was the evening’s guest soloist, playing Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 1 in E flat major. This is very early Strauss – he was 18 when he wrote it – and it sounds more like Schumann or “Flying Dutchman”-vintage Wagner than like the tone poems that Strauss produced later.

King seemed to have that more mature (and to an orchestral musician, more familiar) Strauss in mind as he played with a bright sonority and a rather declamatory tone. It was a gratifying display of solo horn playing (a few flubs and smeared phrases notwithstanding), but King’s performance lacked the warmth and shaded color needed in music of German high-romantic style.

The program opened with “Lumen” (2007) by the Polish-born, Chicago-based composer and percussionist Marta Ptaszynska. The piece, audibly influenced by Ptaszynska’s mentor, Witold Lutoslawski, as well as by Bartók, is described by the composer as a musical realization of the properties of “gradually unfolding light, such as a beam of light traveling through a crystal prism.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, much of the orchestration is darkly colored and ominously heavy – perhaps a sonic backdrop for the “luminous and radiant sounds . . . full of luminous colors” that Ptaszynska seeks to represent. The motto that she gave the work, via Dylan Thomas – “Light breaks where no sun shines” – accurately describes what the listener senses in this piece.

Smith, who conducted the premiere of “Lumen” with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony in 2008, showed complete command of its busy orchestration and kaleidoscopic welter of tone colors.

The Richmond Symphony, notably its string players, percussionists, pianist Russell Wilson and harpist Lynnette Wardle, treated Ptaszynska’s score to a performance of edge-of-the-seat concentration.

If only some of the warm, hefty lower-string tone lavished on “Lumen” had returned in the Tchaikovsky.

* * * 

UPDATE (Nov. 18) – During his appearance with the Richmond Symphony, Richard King told Zachary Lewis of The Plain Dealer that he is relinquishing his position as principal horn of the Cleveland Orchestra after 17 years. “I’m getting pretty tired,” King said:


King will continue playing with the orchestra. 
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James Wilson, the cellist who serves as artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, counters the doomsayers on the future of classical music, at least on the small scale of chamber music: “[A] quick glance around Richmond proves . . . that chamber music is thriving — besides CMSCVA you can find Classical Revolution RVA, Richmond Chamber Players, the Oberon Quartet and the Atlantic Chamber Ensemble.”

Their audiences are attracted by “the intensity of the music, and the thrill of sitting close to musicians tearing into it,” Wilson writes in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

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Squabbles between performers and their critics have entertained onlookers for as long as performers have been critiqued.

Whole books have been written on the subject: Nicolas Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective,” sampling denunciations of acknowledged masterpieces, is probably the best-known. My favorite is a much less widely circulated title, “The Music Monster,” Charles Reid’s biography of the mid-19th-century London music critic James William Davison, who found fault with most every significant composer of his time except Mendelssohn.

The next such book presumably will mention Dejan Lazic, a Croatian-born pianist whose 2010 recital at the Kennedy Center was the subject of a largely negative review by The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette:


In September, Lazic wrote to The Post, asking that the review be removed from its online archives. The review, which the pianist described as “simply over the top in sheer negativity and toxicity” and “in my opinion defamatory,” is one of the top entries shown after a Google search of his name, Lazic wrote:


Midgette’s response:


Especially striking is the pianist’s justification of his request by citing the “right to be forgotten” law enacted last year in the European Union countries. This may the first case of a professional performer asserting this right. (Be careful what you wish for.)

Lazic doesn’t bolster his case by citing the infamous review of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto by the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, excoriating the piece as music that “stinks to the ear.” Pungent as Hanslick’s assessment was, the Tchaikovsky concerto survived and continues to thrive.

Google search results for “Dejan Lazic,” as of this date: (1) “Pianist Dejan Lazic Defends His Takedown Request By Pointing Out That The WaPo Reviewer Is Really Mean” (www.techdirt.com) and other “in the news” citations; (2) Lazic’s website, whose home page leads with his letter to The Post; (3) Midgette’s 2010 review.

In a search of “Dejan Lazic” on the Bing search engine, the Midgette review is not on the first page. One of the top results, though, is an article by Jay Gabler on the Minnesota Public Radio website titled “Why does pianist Dejan Lazic want to be forgotten?”
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Nov. 6
noon-2 p.m. EST
1700-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Richard Strauss: “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/
Manfred Honeck (Reference Recordings)

Mozart: Symphony No. 29 in A major, K. 201
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Charles Mackerras (Linn)

Dvorák: Dumka in
D minor, Op. 35
Lada Valešová, piano (Avie)

Milhaud: “Suite provençale”
Lille National Orchestra/Jean-Claude Casadesus (Naxos)

Past Masters:
Gershwin: Piano Concerto
in F major
Earl Wild, piano
Boston Pops/Arthur Fiedler
(RCA Victor)
(recorded 1961)

George I. Gurdjieff: “Sayyid chant and dance” No. 3/
Hymn No. 7
Komitas Vardapet: “Chinar es”
Anja Lechner, cello; François Couturier, piano (ECM)
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Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, accompaniel by pianist David Zobel, will “Journey through Venice” in a recital at 8 p.m. EST (1000 UTC/GMT) Nov. 4 at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The performance can be heard on a free live webcast from medici.tv:


DiDonato’s program includes arias by Vivaldi and Rossini, Venice-inspired songs by Fauré and Hahn and British composer Michael Head’s “Three Songs of Venice.”

The recital is the first of four Carnegie Hall programs to be webcast and streamed this fall. Those concerts, all at 8 p.m. EST (1000 UTC/GMT):

Nov. 18 – Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and her Mutter Virtuosi ensemble, playing Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and the U.S. premiere of André Previn’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

Nov. 22 – Violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang, playing Schumann Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 121; Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100; Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor; and Respighi’s Violin Sonata in B minor.

Dec. 9 – Pianist Daniil Trifonov, playing works by Beethoven and Liszt and Liszt arrangements of Bach.

All four concerts, in addition to being webcast live, will be available as streams for 90 days after the events.
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