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Virginia Symphony Opener—Emmanuel Ax
Chrysler Hall, September 20, 2014
Review by M.D. Ridge

The September 20 season opener for Virginia Symphony got off to a sizzling start with Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Don Juan. Written when the composer was only 24, the exciting work began with brilliant full orchestra, evolving in lively, romantic, pensive and foreboding turns. (Think Errol Flynn at his peak.) Concertmaster Vahn Armstrong’s achingly sweet violin phrases and Sherie Lake Aguirre’s lovely oboe were standouts, as was the passion expressed by four French horns in unison.

Usually a solo performer will do his or her stint in one half of the program. However, the amazing pianist Emmanuel Ax appeared both before and after the intermission, playing two quite dissimilar works by quite dissimilar composers: Mozart and, again, Richard Strauss.

The orchestra slimmed down for Mozart’s intimate and charming Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat Major, for which the composer specified small orchestra. In the first movement, Ax used short figures—starting in the left hand and echoed in the right, then reversed—to display extraordinary clarity and articulation, making the piano a quiet voice singing in dialogue with the orchestra. In the second, Andantino, movement, conductor JoAnn Falletta kept the strings beautifully restrained, so that they were very intense and supportive against the quiet piano. Ax’s thoughtful phrasing brought beauty of articulation to even tiny little runs, soft as breath and as life-giving. The final movement, Allegro non troppo, was seamless—forceful or delicate by turns, but always transparent as crystal.

Polish-born, Ax and his family moved to Canada when he was a young boy; he attended Juilliard and, later, Columbia University, where he majored in French. He won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in 1974, and 40 years later, is still dazzling audiences.

After the interval, Ax returned to play Richard Strauss’s fiendishly difficult Burleske for Piano and Orchestra—as different from the Mozart concerto as Beethoven is from a lullaby. The German word burleske differs from its English counterpart; the German meaning implies mockery—and overlaps, theatrically, with extravaganza. The work’s original title was Scherzo, which means joke—but both titles are misleading. It’s no joke. Strauss wrote it for Hans von Bülow, who thought it “a complicated piece of nonsense” and refused to learn it. A few years later, a more evolved version was premiered by Eugen d’Albert, and eventually published.

The work began with a thunder of timpani, answered by the orchestra; then Ax reeled out shimmering ribbons of piano notes, soft against the orchestra. A lovely romantic section preceded a dialog of authoritative piano and timpani, followed by a pensive ¾ passage, then fast, brilliant piano, more timpani. . . and a surprisingly quiet finish. Both Ax and conductor Falletta seemed in perfect consonance throughout. The audience erupted in enthusiastic bravos and appreciative whistling.

Ravel’s La Valse went through a number of changes before becoming an orchestral showpiece. Its French composer originally intended it as a symphonic poem, a tribute to the Viennese waltz, whose rhythms and joi de vivre he found wonderful. He reworked it as a ballet for Serge Diaghilev but that didn’t pan out, and it became a popular concert work. In 1926, the ballet was premiered by the Royal Flemish Ballet, and its complex music has since been choreographed by Nijinsky, Balanchine and Frederick Ashton. It has been seen as a passionate anti-war statement after the carnage of World War I, but Ravel commented, “I did not envision a. . . struggle between life and death,” and had imagined the ballet as being set in a mid-19th-century imperial ballroom.

It began quietly, with the murmur of double basses, joined by the lush harps of Barbara Chapman and Vince Zentner. Other instruments entered in fragments, different melodies, some sweet, some crisp with percussion. Strange modulations and changes of instrumentation became macabre as the waltz spun and whirled. Falletta masterfully brought the orchestra right to the brink of chaos. (One could hear echoes of “Wow!” in the audience.)

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

Katie Luther, A New Opera by Glenn Winters
Sung by Soprano Elizabeth Medeiros Hogue with Pianist Ruth Winters
Reformation Lutheran Church, Newport News, October 26, 2014
Review by John Campbell

Glenn Winters’ opera Katie Luther was premiered in Baltimore on October 27, 2013 by Elizabeth Hogue and has been performed since in Albuquerque and St. Louis. In this monodrama the known facts are enhanced by a plausible scenario written by Winters based on common human emotions expressed through the voice accompanied by piano.

Martin Luther(1485-1546) was born in Eisleben, Germany. He entered the University of Erfurt where he completed his BA in 1502 and a MA in 1505. He studied to be a lawyer but was drawn to the study of the scriptures and spent three years in the Augustinian monastery there. In 1507 he was ordained as a Catholic priest and went to the University of Wittenberg where he lectured on philosophy and scriptures becoming a powerful and influential preacher.

Katie was born Katherine von Bora (1499-1552). She was a German Catholic nun. From age six she lived in the Cistercian Convent of Nimptshen, near Grimma. Having adopted Lutherine doctrines she ran away from the convent in 1523, and married Martin Luther in 1525.

Written in three scenes, the opera is a little less than an hour long. Soprano Elizabeth Medeiros Hogue is an emotionally expressive and powerful singer; she was accompanied by the accomplished collaborative pianist Ruth Winters. Ms. Hogue, in a black lace floor-length gown with a black shawl and a prominent cross necklace, sings of her anguish because she cannot pray. She tells us of her planned escape from the convent. Her thoughts turn to Martin Luther, who has arranged an escape at the nuns’ request. (In fact, twelve nuns were smuggled out in herring barrels.) Setting aside her fear she affirms her faith in God. The piano reflects clearly the unsettled emotions and their triumphant resolution.

The second scene is built around the translated text and re-imagined melodies of A Mighty Fortress is Our God woven into a story of her longing for love in a marriage where she fears she is only a helpmate. Here the dramatist departs from the facts, giving us a ditsy housewife complaining about her absent-minded professor husband with the contemporary clichéd jokes that elicited a laugh, perhaps thought necessary for a general church audience.

It was a jarring contrast for the woman in the first scene with her deep sense of vocation and great admiration for the man who is now her renowned scholarly husband. As a point of fact, it seems that Luther’s aversion to marriage was his fear of leaving behind a widow because “…I daily expect the death of a heretic.” They married on June 13, 1525 and their first child, Hans, was born a year later when Katie was 27 and Luther was 42 years old. In a letter two months after they married, he wrote: “My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus.”

The music of the second scene was lovely and Ms. Hogue’s singing of the hymn texts was superb as the separate verses were woven into the story. She was overjoyed to find Luther’s letter to a male friend proclaiming his love for her, leading into the triumphal final verse with renewed vigor and power.

As scene two ended, Ms. Hogue sat down in a chair several feet from the podium with her back to the audience. After a pause she rose, transformed by posture and expression into an old woman in pain. Seven years a widow, she has been mortally injured in a carriage accident while fleeing the black plague rampant in the city. In anguish, she prays to be reunited with Martin, humbly accepting God’s presence with arms outstretched. She sings of fighting to keep her children and reads a letter to the King of Denmark, asking him to continue the allowance he gave Luther. She had continued farming as she had during Luther’s life, but she complained that both crops and animals had failed. Luther's hymn From the Depths of Woe I Cry for You, on a text by Elizabette Terga, was delivered in near delirium. Her life was complete.

The large audience responded most enthusiastically. In his extensive introductory remarks Glenn Winters announced that Katie Luther is being considered for the 2017 Wittenberg Festival in Germany.

Tidewater Classical Guitar Orchestra
Hermitage Museum and Gardens
October 12, 2014
Review by M.D. Ridge

At the opening of the Bruce Munro: Light at Hermitage show at the Hermitage Museum and Gardens October 12, the Tidewater Classical Guitar Orchestra was playing on the flagstone patio overlooking the river.

The shuttle from Second Presbyterian Church on Hampton Blvd. got me to the Hermitage about five minutes into the TCGO’s 6 p.m. set. I wanted to hear the whole of “Millennia Facing East,” which would be repeated at 7 p.m.

Darkness fell as I wandered around, looking at Munro’s light installations. Field of Light was, in the British artist’s words, “a landscape of illuminated stems . . . a personal symbol of the good things in life.” Hundreds and hundreds of small globes on slender rods, each glowing softly with fiber optics and changing colors, seemingly at random; they filled the circular scape in front of the museum and much of the area south of it, by the river’s edge. I’ll bet it looked spectacular from the water—and the lights across the river from the marine terminals seemed to be part of the show, too.

Waves, a series of tall glass rods set up on the rail of the boardwalk over the tidal grasses, flashed on and off in random patterns of gold, blue, green, orange, magenta and turquoise. The seventeen Water Towers were built of 252 stacked water bottles illuminated with fiber optics, again in changing colors, with the accompaniment of music from speakers hidden in a tower base. I heard soft, deep African vocal chants changing to high, ethereal women’s voices before I moved out of earshot—so the vocal colors, too, were changing.

For Parliament of Owls—the name comes from the collective term for a group of owls—pairs of round, glowing yellow discs were set on a tall pole with several horizontal arms. In the dark, the supporting framework was nearly invisible, so the discs really did look like owl’s eyes. There was a noisy racket from the river—the local Canada geese settling down for the evening.

Deeper in the woods were small groups of Munro’s Fireflies, sprays of fiber optics lighted at the tips to look like thousands of fireflies, caught in the dark stillness. Lighthouse is a 6-meter tall installation—a circle of clear, lighted rods that flash a Morse code message towards the river—meant not as a warning to keep away, but as an invitation to enter.

There were three Munro works inside the Hermitage itself, but I didn’t want to miss the TCGO, which was ready to perform again as the sun sank out of sight. Sam Dorsey, the group’s director, noted that “Millennium Facing East” was their second commission from the award-winning guitarist and composer Andrew York. It began with rippling ascending arpeggios, then into wonderful rhythmic hemiolas with a Spanish feel—and, surprisingly, a wordless vocal line over the top, sung by the guitarists themselves. Requinto guitars (think soprano voices) and bajas (bass voices) asked musical questions with strong melodic lines before seguing into the Spanish rhythms, with the soft ahhh vocals, then a hypnotic descending melody with perhaps a Middle Eastern influence. I could have listened to it again and again!

Another York piece—“The Lotus Eaters”—had a hypnotic bass line that repeated a one-three-four-five progression, before fading to silence. Dan Cudney’s “Rana del Arból” was about a tree frog with lots of enemies—but he gets away. The pretty ballad “Julia” was written by TCGO member John Bowles in honor of his daughter.

A slow tune by Argentine composer Cacho Tirao was followed by another delightful Bowles piece called “Jeriology”—he explained his wife’s name is Jeri, and ‘ology means “study of.” So: study of Jeri. The TCGO finished up with a rousing version of Bernstein’s “America,” from West Side Story. (At the earlier set, the group had done the suite from West Side Story.)

The spectators applauded vigorously. One called out, “We couldn’t do a standing ovation—we’re already standing!” It was the perfect accompaniment to a calm, cool night by the river, surrounded by magic lights.

The show—Bruce Munro: Light at the Hermitage—continues through January 10, 2015. Though there are ankle-height motion-detector lights around the various paths, it’s still really dark—bring a good flashlight.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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