It’s All in the Game

Doug Richards’ CD documenting his Great American Music Ensemble is released March 4. Says JazzTimes online in February: “The album – which delivers 15 cuts! – is a musical marvel in every regard…. In the shrewdest of ways, Richards shows he knows the fine line between creative experimentation and jejune jive (of which there’s none). The ensemble is admirably and swingingly up to the task. They cover the challenging material with flair and precision.” Almost every regular member of The Great American Music Ensemble on this disc has ties to VCU Jazz as an alumnus or former or current faculty member.

Read VCU News article by Leila Ugincius

Professor uses sports method in the studio

One thing that most highly successful athletes have in common: They watch themselves over and over again — and then just once more — to figure out why they aren’t performing the way they want…By incorporating the time-honored athletic ritual of “watching film,” violin professor Susanna Klein has students analyze video recordings of themselves performing as part of a more effective, real-world, student-centered learning model. The model has been adopted using the School of the Arts state-of-the-art motion capture lab at The Depot and supported by a grant from ALT Lab.

Read the full story by Blake Birdwell at VCU News…

Welcoming Erin Freeman as VCU Music Director of Choral Activities & Director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts and the Richmond Symphony have announced the creation of the new joint position of director of choral activities at VCU and director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus. The position is being piloted as a one-year, non-tenured faculty appointment for the 2014-2015 academic year.

Pending final approval, Erin R. Freeman, D.M.A., current director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus and holder of the James Erb Choral Chair at the Richmond Symphony, will be named initially to the new joint position, which carries a faculty rank of assistant professor in the VCU School of the Arts Department of Music.

“I’m thrilled to be joining the VCU music department,” Freeman said. “Through my work with the Richmond Symphony, I have had the honor of getting to know and work with the faculty on several occasions. I am pleased to become their academic colleague in the fall.”

The VCU School of the Arts is consistently ranked as one of the top graduate arts schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report. Darryl V. Harper, chair of the Department of Music in the VCU School of the Arts, said he’s excited about the possibilities created by the new position.

“We are delighted that Dr. Freeman will be lending her formidable talents to the VCU community, and we are excited about the potential of this new collaboration with RSO,” Harper said.

Following Freeman’s tenure as associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony, the new position allows her to continue to contribute significantly to the musical life of the region and to play a major role in the education of young singers in the commonwealth.

“I am thrilled that Erin will be continuing her exceptionally fine work with the RSO Chorus, as well as becoming a leader in this heightened collaboration with VCU,” said RSO Music Director Steven Smith.

RSO Executive Director David Fisk said the partnership marks an important milestone in the long relationship between VCU School of the Arts and the Richmond Symphony, and Freeman’s participation offers both organizations an opportunity to do more together than either institution could accomplish alone.

“We are excited that Erin has agreed to accept this position and continue her commitment to building community and inspiring audiences in Richmond and beyond,” Fisk said.

A “work” of art: VCU Opera & VCU Symphony present The Merry Widow


Backstage, students assemble parts for the upcoming opera.


Students practice care measuring and cutting parts for The Merry Widow’s scenery.

It’s no surprise that the origin of the word “opera” in Italian is “work.” Planning a full-scale opera production for VCU Music is, in fact, a lot of “work.” Melanie Day and Kenneth Wood, Co-Directors of VCU Opera, face considerable challenges that could easily keep opera from being part of VCU’s artistic heritage. But each year, the directors prevail. For two days, the Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall is transformed into a Richmond opera house where undergraduate instrumentalists and singers move into the spotlight as virtuosos, charming audiences with delightful drama and music.

Unlike some institutions, many students come to VCU Music with no previous exposure to opera. To audiences and aspiring performers, the art form can be a mystery with its ascending arias, complex costumes, and showy scenery. Opera’s origins are traced back to great composers like Mozart, Rossini, and Strauss who wrote for professional performers of the time. “Opera was not written for amateurs,” quipped Kenneth Wood. As a result, vocal students must undergo a theatrical journey learning stage movements, advancing their acting skills, and refining their own singing abilities.

Students in the orchestra must quickly adapt to “life in the pit” and challenge themselves to follow a series of dramatic, vocal, and conducting cues while carefully counting measures as Daniel Myssyk, Director of VCU Symphony, conducts for both the orchestra and singers on stage. Even those who aren’t performing in the opera are challenged, assisting with demanding behind-the-scenes roles including scenery design, set building, lighting, choreography, costuming, makeup and hair application, and stage management. For all students involved, their “opera journey” comes in tandem with learning music for other ensembles and recitals, and balancing classes and jobs.

“That’s one of the reasons our students aren’t divas,” Day said. From being involved in all aspects of the more than 60 year-old opera company, students have learned to respect the hard work it takes to put together such a monumental production. “[VCU Opera] has tremendously enhanced their understanding of what it takes to put it all together,” Day continued.

So, why The Merry Widow? Franz Lehar’s hit take on a rich widow inspired seductive corsets, glamorous hats – even cocktails and cigarettes. As the 20th century’s most famous widow, Hollywood made three films about the lead Sonia Glawari and Broadway couldn’t get enough. Flirtation, glamour, and high finance are featured as Prince Danilo is ordered to marry the rich young widow or risk the country’s bankruptcy. Audiences will enjoy as the ever-familiar plot, For love or money?, is tested.


Quiet contemplation. A student reads a score during the first day of “Tech Week.”

In taking consideration of students’ vocal range, Day noticed the puzzle pieces of a perfect production fitting together in her search of this year’s opera. “Our singers had the vocal range available to sing these parts. [There were] a lot of a medium-sized parts,” she said, allowing many students to share the spotlight. Day also pointed out that an opera like The Merry Widow “gives singers the chance to learn how to do dialogue,” offering a specific type of training for the ambitious performer. In the case of this spring’s opera, The Merry Widow, students must stretch their usual performance boundaries, learning dance moves like the Viennese waltz and the Can Can!

About eight years ago, members of VCU Opera performed The Merry Widow in Rome as part of Operafestival di Roma, a nonprofit summer opera program in Italy, where Day served as Principal Coach and Artistic Director. Because of that, many of the costumes were available in VCU Opera’s extensive collection. Luck prevailed and the Department already had access to orchestral parts, cutting one of the many fees. Between the basics of royalty and costuming fees, financing an opera is expensive.

Not mentioned yet are the technical, stage demands of the show. As many know, VCU Music’s concert space, the Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall is technically not a theatre. Switching from an embassy ball to a garden party to a ballroom might be “par for the course” for an opera or theatre company, but these maneuvers push VCU Opera to its limits. Simply building on campus can be difficult because of storage, sound, and space issues. Technical Director Roland Karnatz has to envision building scenery in small, storable components that can be put together in one day with minimal access to tools. Whew!

With all these pieces in mind, the research process is lengthy. Day and Wood spend the summer researching all of these financial aspects and considering the “big picture” of VCU Opera. “A lot of schools select the show they’re going to do the spring before,” Day said. Day and Wood elect to do their process differently, allowing many students a chance to be involved and holding auditions in the fall.

“We go through all types of effort to do our best,” said Day. And audiences are glad they do. The Merry Widow opens Friday, April 25, with a second performance on Sunday, April 27.

Friday, April 25 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 27 at 4 p.m.

General admission tickets are $10 in advance and $15 on the day of the performance. VCU students with ID are free.

View more backstage photos on our Facebook page!

Quick Q&A: Jose Simbulan, keyboardist for “Wicked” at Altria Theater

It’s that time again – Broadway’s most “popular” Broadway musical “Wicked” is headed to Richmond’s newly renovated Altria Theater. “Wicked” is the tale behind Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch of the West, the witches of the mystical land of Oz. Apart from all of the majesty and ruby slippers on stage is the music behind the groundbreaking songs. For each stop on their tour, “Wicked” invites nine local musicians to play in their orchestra pit. Jose Simbulan, a 1992 VCU Music piano performance alumnus, is taking to the task for the musical’s stay in Richmond. Read more »

April 2014: Emerson and Kathy Hughes

While students at VCU Music, Emerson and Kathy Hughes’ musical friendship evolved into something more and the college sweethearts wed their senior year of college. Kathy served as accompanist for Emerson, a vocalist, and in spring 1965, the two Music Education majors graduated from VCU Music. In the past 50 years, the two have nurtured a family, a business, and their respective careers in and out of the music field. Post-graduation, the two began music education careers in Henrico County, but a new venture soon presented itself.

In 1972, after a talk with a friend and local veterinarian, the two set off like many enterprising entrepreneurs. Recognizing a need where other Richmond-area businesses were lacking, the two began Holiday Barn Pet Resorts. What began simply as a space for clients to leave their pets during vacations has now turned into a premier resort for pets. Holiday Barn has even received national notoriety from the Travel Channel as one of the “Top 10 Places to Pamper a Pooch.” Now, the couple’s quest for a family business has expanded to two locations with 125 employees and their son Michael (VCU c/o 1997, M.B.A.) at the helm. Read more »

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis poses with smiling VCU Music faculty after April’s master class.

Kudos: April 2014

  • James Waterhouse (BME ’72) recently completed five years as principal Organist and Accompanist at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Gainesville, VA. and simultaneously at Haymarket Baptist Church in Haymarket, VA. His recent choral and instrumental compositions and arrangements are now available from JWPepper.com.
  • Sophomore Margaret Mayes won 2nd place in her division at the Mid-Atlantic auditions of the National Association of Teachers of Singing on April 4th, which is comprised of singers from South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C.
  • Nichole Savage (’13) will be playing Beth in Capitol Opera’s upcoming production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land. She is also currently the Minister of Music at Central United Methodist Church and the lead singer of Richmond world/fusion band Karamazov.  Savage also recently became a patroness member of the Richmond Alumnae Chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota.
  • Nick Bonadies, a Senior Piano Performance major, has been accepted to the Royal Academy of Music in London where he will be pursuing a Master of Arts Piano Performance.
  • Richmond’s No BS! Brass performed at the sold out opening of the Broadberry on April 17th. Owned and operated by those behind popular Richmond hangouts The Camel and Joes Inn, The Broadberry is Richmond’s newest live music venue. No BS! Brass is home to professors Bryan Hooten and Taylor Barnett, alumnus Reggie Pace, and recent graduate Sam Koff.
  • Alumnus Douglas-Jayd Burn has been accepted to University of Arizona School of Music on full scholarship. His studies will also include a teaching assistantship.
  • Marcus Grant has received the Graduate Tuition Award from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music and will begin attending this fall. 
  • VCU Jazz’s Africa Combo travelled to Norfolk, Virginia to perform for the Governor’s School for the Arts.  The ensemble is comprised of six students participating in an ongoing cultural exchange with jazz musicians from the University of Kwazula-Natal in Durban, South Africa.
  • Violinist Chanel Hurt received a Edwin Johonnott Scholarship from the Virginia Chapter of the American String Teachers Association.
  • Alumna Stephanie Auld will be attending the Petri School of Music in the fall to pursue her Master of Music in Vocal Performance.
  • Spacebomb East, operated by several VCU Music Alumni, opened its downtown location in Richmond this month. Spacebomb East is a record label and hub for music production and music publishing projects. It is and has already established a relationship with over 20 former students and some current professors.
  • Sophomore Lanjiabao Ge won the March 2014 Sigma Alpha Iota Scholarship Competition, which was open to all instrumental and vocal areas of VCU Department of Music. In addition to a cash prize, Lanjiabao will perform for the SAI Alumnae Chapter.
  • Darryl Harper’s “rewarding” new album The Edenfred Files was reviewed by Jazz Times.
  • Eleven vocal students were awarded honors at the February 2014 National Association of Teachers of Singing Auditions and Conference in Shenandoah. These included two 1st place wins by Margaret Mayes and Forrest Glass.
  • Branford Marsalis, internationally acclaimed jazz saxophonist and son of  jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis (who holds an honorary doctorate from VCU Music), Jr., presented a masterclass to saxophone students in early April.

Dr. Yin Zheng, piano, kicks off spring “Journey” Series with Mozart

For classical music artists, mastering the work of a favorite composer is not only a lifelong goal, but an opportunity to understand the composer’s inspiration and thought process intimately. Usually, getting any closer, beyond the written work of long-deceased classical music composers, is an impossibility.

Although Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has been dead for 223 years, Dr. Yin Zheng found herself closer to him than most modern musicians will ever get to experience. In July, Dr. Yin Zheng recorded the complete Sonatas for Piano and Violin by Wolfgang A. Mozart with violinist Bin Huang, Gold Medalist of the prestigious Paganini and Munich ARD International Violin Competitions.

“It’s an incredibly visceral experience to play on Mozart’s own instruments, to have his manuscripts and letters right in front of us, and to walk every street he once set his foot on,” Dr. Zheng said.

“From the artist stand point, it is an extremely immersive experience and ambitious undertaking to record all 16 mature sonatas for Piano and Violin by Mozart,” said Dr. Zheng. “It took us multiple trips to Salzburg where we had the privilege to study and research on the topic at the Bibliotheca Mozartiana.

As if recording 16 sonatas wasn’t enough, Dr. Zheng gained a new appreciation for Mozart and his work. “We have gained much more insightful understanding of the compositional process and performance practice after studying and comparing his facsimiles and first editions. I have also discovered, apart from some of the popular sonatas, some lesser-known gems in this collection and am excited to introduce them to my students,” Dr. Zheng said.

Journey with Mozart begins the first of several “Journey” concerts. The second, Journey to Eastern Europe, will take place at VCU in April. Dr. Zheng will be performing alongside two of Richmond Symphony’s talented musicians.


Violinist Leila Josefowicz replaces string trio for April 12 Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Music Concert

Two MacArthur Foundation Fellows take over Spring Rennolds Series concerts

A recent change to VCU Music’s Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Music Series concert brings two back-to-back performances by MacArthur Foundation Fellows this Spring. Alisa Weilerstein (cello) will perform in the March 29 Rennolds Series concert and a new addition to the series, Leila Josefowicz (violin), will perform in the April 12 Rennolds Series concert. Josefowicz, a world-renowned violinist and former Artist-in-Residence for The Philadelphia Orchestra, will bring her “supple technique” (New York Times) and “fantastic talent” (Gramophone) to Richmond.

Josefowicz has graciously agreed to perform that evening after the Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Music Series program featuring Pamela Frank (violin), Nobuko Imai (viola), and Clemens Hagen (cello) scheduled for Saturday, April 12 at 8:00 p.m. was cancelled. Due to an unforeseen medical situation, Mr. Hagen is unable to tour.

Tickets already issued for the “Pamela Frank, Nobuko Imai, and Clemens Hagen” concert will be honored by the VCU Music Box Office for the Leila Josefowicz concert. No exchanges are needed.

January-February 2014: Christopher Mastromarino

Christopher Mastromarino, affectionately called “Mr. M” by the students he is leading at Matoaca Middle School in Chesterfield County, is a current undergraduate student in the Music Education program.

His musical journey began with the same tools that many others may remember fondly. The familiar story involves a second-hand piano and childhood music lessons. “When I was young,” Mastromarino reflected, “my father bought me a full-size piano.” The piano, perhaps found with the help of the local newspaper’s classified section, didn’t make lessons any easier for Mastromarino. But Elton John tunes played by ear kept his interest in piano fresh.

A native of Sterling, VA, Mastromarino’s family moved to Arundel, MD during his teenage years. Mastromarino remembers that the school’s music program was a stark cry from what he was used to in Northern Virginia. In Virginia, he was a member of several choruses and ensembles throughout the years. His new environment in Maryland, though, didn’t have as many diverse musical opportunities. As a result, students like Mastromarino took on new roles and responsibilities, even assisting with ensembles and music courses.

Read more »