Listen Up: Classical music is alive and well in Charlottesville

The Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia performed the second of two annual holiday concerts at Old Cabell Hall on Sunday, December 2. Photo by Martyn Kyle The Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia performed the second of two annual holiday concerts at Old Cabell Hall on Sunday, December 2. Photo by Martyn Kyle

As Charlottesville’s character has broadened, so has its classical music scene, which is now largely driven by community efforts to build the culture.

When Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach began transforming the sounds we were used to hearing, 250 years ago, people said it was the death of classical music,” says Benjamin Rous, music director of the Charlottesville Symphony. “And they have been saying that, for one reason or another, ever since. But classical music is still very much alive.”

Classical music is easy to find around Charlottesville, especially during the holidays. In fact, for classical music devotees, Charlottesville is an all-year-round kind of town, with choices from instrumental to vocal, large-scale to chamber, medieval to modern. “Whether for performers or audience members, this broad category of music we refer to by the sometimes narrow term ‘classical music’ has something for everyone,” says Michael Slon, music director of The Oratorio Society of Virginia and associate professor and director of choral music at the University of Virginia. “And for a town our size, there’s a tremendous array of offerings.”

A symphony orchestra, an opera company, and a large-scale symphonic chorus—Charlottesville has had all of them for decades. Being a university town helps, but as Charlottesville’s character has broadened, so has its classical music scene, which is now largely driven by community efforts to build the culture.

Major players

The Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia, while based at UVA, has been run by the nonprofit Charlottesville Symphony Society since 1976. Fifteen of the orchestra’s 16 principals teach music in some capacity. The rest of the musicians are other faculty, UVA students, and members of the Charlottesville community; Executive Director Janet Kaltenbach notes “most of our musicians are well qualified to play in any professional orchestra in the country.” The Symphony presents five concerts a year, scheduled around the academic calendar—and around home football games, which shut down access and parking around UVA’s Old Cabell Hall, one of its two performance venues.

Janet Kaltenbach is the executive director of the Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia. Photo by Martyn Kyle

The Charlottesville Opera began 40 years ago as the Ash Lawn Opera, offering summer open-air performances at James Monroe’s home. In 2009, the company moved its base of operations to the Paramount Theater, where it could offer larger-scale productions and draw bigger audiences. Two years ago, the company became the Charlottesville Opera. Martha Redinger, a current board member active with the organization since 2004, is proud of the Opera’s record of showcasing young singers who have gone on to become top-notch opera stars; its recent fundraiser featured nationally known bass-baritone Eric Owens, whose first paid professional gig was at Ash Lawn in 1992.

The Oratorio Society of Virginia celebrated its 50th anniversary last year with a commissioned choral work by Virginia composer Adolphus Hailstork, based on a poem by UVA professor and Pulitzer Prize-winner Rita Dove. The chorus is made up of about 90 auditioned amateurs who range from recent UVA voice majors to retirees. (Full disclosure: this writer is a member.) The Oratorio Society is affiliated with UVA’s McIntire School of Music (music director Slon also leads UVA’s choral groups), but its driving force is community volunteers.

The Virginia Consort, now in its 29th season, grew out of the Oratorio Society; building on the first group of 25 singers, Consort founder and music director/conductor Judith Gary has created a constellation of chorales. The Chamber Ensemble, about 40 voices, performs twice a year; additional singers are auditioned each year to create the larger Festival Chorus, which presents one large choral work with orchestra. The Youth Chorale program includes the High School Chorus and the Treble Chorus (both directed by Gary) and the Prelude and First Step Choirs (directed by local music and vocal teacher Donna Rehorn).

The Virginia Consort’s Festival Chorus performs a large choral work with an orchestra each season. Photo courtesy Virginia Consort

Chamber music and more

Charlottesville also has a long-standing and rich chamber music scene. The two major players, the Tuesday Evening Concert Series (called TECS, and started in 1948) and the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival (begun in 1999), are by design complementary: from October through April, TECS offers a season featuring touring national and international stars, while the Festival’s September performances highlight emerging artists and edgier works. “We push the boundary of what chamber music is,” says Festival founder and board member Elsie Thompson, “and our audiences are willing to come along.” (All the classical groups in Charlottesville agree the audiences here are knowledgeable, enthusiastic and loyal; “the ecosystem here is exceptional,” says Rous, who took up the Symphony’s leadership in 2017.)

For chamber music fans willing to travel a bit, Staunton presents a top-notch music festival in August; Wintergreen stages a music festival in July-August; and Harrisonburg hosts the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival every June (not to be confused with the non-classical Shenandoah Music Festival held in Orkney Springs).

Bringing the Paramount Theater back to life—an effort which Thompson helped steer—has given the Chamber Music Festival and other classical groups a larger performance space (in addition to popular venues Old Cabell Hall, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing Arts Center at Charlottesville High School, and First Presbyterian Church). The Oratorio Society holds its annual December concert at the Paramount, performing large-scale choral works with orchestra members. The Opera holds its two annual performances there (one a classical opera, the other a musical theater work), hiring local players for its orchestra and building its own sets. Fingers are crossed for spring 2019, with music supporters hoping that the UVA working group on university-community relationships might include the building of a top-class performing arts venue in its recommendations to President Jim Ryan. “We’re the only state university in Virginia that doesn’t have one,” says Kaltenbach.

Trevor Scheunemann (right), who has sung with the San Francisco Opera, the Washington National Opera, and the Opéra National de Bordeaux, rehearses for last summer’s production of Charlottesville Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Amy Jackson Smith

Victory Hall Opera, on the other hand, believes small is beautiful. This newcomer was launched three years ago by international opera singers Brenda Patterson and Miriam Gordon-Stewart, along with opera director and Charlottesville resident Maggie Bell. Patterson says, “We saw Charlottesville as a place that would support a newer, more innovative concept of opera, led by singers and based around singers.” Rather than the opera industry’s model of freelancing a production’s star roles, Victory Hall’s troupe of 12 singers fashions a season of small works—some classic, some contemporary, some original. The group has staged productions in PVCC’s Dickinson Theater, Alderman Library, Vinegar Hill Theatre, and (a groundbreaker) Monticello.

The money problem

Large or small, every organization faces the issue of funding—calling on volunteer board members, staff, and members to seek grant money and work on fundraising, in addition to selling tickets (which cover only around 25 percent of costs). Common grant sources are the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the Maurice Amado Foundation, the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, and the Bama Works Fund of the Dave Matthews Band. Charlottesville isn’t home to many large corporations (i.e., potential donors), but local banks—Union Bank, Virginia National Bank, and Wells Fargo—are frequent contributors. In addition, each group has its base of loyal individual donors who love classical music, want to see it performed, and believe in its value for the community.

Every classical music group makes an effort to keep ticket prices reasonable, and offers subscriber discounts as well as cut-price or free student tickets. “We’re a university town, and people who live here—or move here, or retire here—expect a vital cultural scene,” says Karen Pellón, long-time executive director of TECS. “But people here also expect the concerts to be affordable, even though we are often bringing in the same artists they would pay far more to hear at Washington’s Kennedy Center.”

The Paramount’s director of operations and programming, Matthew Simon, faces the same challenge. The Paramount can bring in national names like this season’s big star, world-renowned pianist Murray Perahia. But top artists charge top fees, so Simon has to balance that cost with what he feels the Charlottesville audience will bear. In the meantime, the Paramount’s broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” programs offers a higher-quality screen and space than most of the Met’s national network—“a better Met Live experience than you’d get in most big cities,” Simon notes.

Three Notch’d Road’s Simon Martyn-Ellis plays the theorbo during the baroque ensemble’s recording session at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood. Photo by Mathias Reed

Early music

The smaller groups, which often perform more intimate works, rely on the area’s churches, which make wonderful settings for the early music (medieval, Renaissance and baroque) that Charlottesville is particularly rich in.

Three Notch’d Road, founded in 2011 by local musicians Fiona Hughes, Anne Timberlake, and David McCormick, presents baroque music played on instruments of the period. Concerts have included “Bach Comes to America,” and a recent program on Polish baroque music that was inspired by a sonata found in violinist Thomas Jefferson’s collection. The ensemble’s 20 professional musicians live and perform around the country. Hughes, now the group’s artistic director as well as a baroque violinist, says one of her goals is “introducing the music of the past in ways that overcome our assumptions about the past—for example, people are often surprised at how bright and active medieval music can be.”

Since 1991, Zephyrus has presented works of the medieval, Renaissance, and baroque periods, primarily vocal, although their performances will occasionally include professional instrumentalists. Its 16 to 20 singers are all local and nonprofessional. Megan Sharp, the group’s music director, says its music is well-suited to a church space such as St. Paul’s Memorial, Holy Comforter, or Emmanuel in Greenwood. Zephyrus has “quite a committed following” for the three or four performances it gives each season, says Sharp; the group is increasingly drawing young people and, especially this time of year, “people who want something that’s not the commercial stuff.”

Members of Zephyrus, which performs primarily vocal works of the medieval, Renaissance, and baroque periods, rehearse for their December 7 concert. Photo by Martyn Kyle

MIRA was begun in 2005 by local singer Raven Hunter, with an informal group singing Renaissance polyphonic vocal music that grew into an ensemble of 12 to 18 performers. “Our singers are professional, or semi-professional, or could be,” says Hunter. “I audition to keep the group small; the music we perform is usually six to eight voices [choral parts], and their sound has to blend well.” MIRA’s repertoire may extend back to medieval works, or forward into the 20th century for composers like Benjamin Britten who incorporate earlier styles.

The newest addition, Fire, is a small women’s a cappella group started by retired church musician and singer Linda Hanson as “a birthday present to myself.” Fire’s repertoire is sacred music from medieval to modern, “from what you would hear in a worship service to broadly spiritual,” says Hanson. Its public performances, held on the fourth Sunday in October and on Mother’s Day each year, benefit PACEM, a local organization that coordinates space and volunteers to provide shelter to the homeless.

Making it happen

“If you love music, make it happen” is a recurring theme. All of Charlottesville’s classical music groups are community-driven, from boards to donors to performers. Thompson—who, in addition to sitting on the board of the Chamber Music Festival, is also on the boards of the Oratorio Society and the Opera—says, “I’m not a musician, I can’t sing or play an instrument,” but she believes “music is a gathering place for the community.” Most small cities don’t have their own baroque ensemble, says Three Notch’d Road’s Hughes, but “I live here, and I really wanted to bring this wonderful music to our area.” The Consort’s Gary recalls that when her small group began meeting to sing together, “We didn’t intend to perform, but we had so much fun we incorporated.”

Karen Pellón, executive director of the Tuesday Evening Concert Series, says “we’re a university town, and people who live here expect a vital cultural scene.” Photo by Eze Amos

Another success factor: synergy. The groups informally network to avoid performing the same works, or on the same dates. Each group has its own niche, so they aren’t competing for audiences (or donors). And the groups cross-fertilize, which expands their offerings and audiences. The Symphony performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Oratorio Society and UVA’s leading choral group, the University Singers. The Opera has staged concert performances with the Oratorio Society as chorus. The Oratorio Society has appeared with the Wintergreen Music Festival and the Roanoke Symphony, and included the University Singers as well as local church and high school ensembles in its concerts. Both the Symphony and Three Notch’d Road have performed with UVA’s Chamber Singers, its smaller chorus.

To misquote Mark Twain, it seems recent reports of the death of classical music are greatly exaggerated. “It’s a wonderful thing for people to be making and experiencing music on a regular basis,” says Slon. “The Oratorio Society’s programming is geared to the singers, to our audiences, to possibilities for creative collaborations, and to a belief in the music itself.  That’s part of our role, to be an advocate for the music.”

Now hear this

As you can see from our roundup of upcoming performances, there’s something for every music-lover this month, from performances to WTJU’s Classical Marathon.

Through Sunday, December 9

  • WTJU’s Classical Marathon

24/7 on WTJU 91.1FM, or online at

Thursday, December 6

Old Cabell Hall, 7pm, $10/$5 students

Friday, December 7

St. Paul’s Memorial Church, 7:30pm, $20/$10 seniors/$5 students and children

Old Cabell Hall, 8pm, $10/$5 students

  • UVA Composers Concert

Brooks Hall, 8pm, free

Saturday, December 8

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, 3:30pm, $20/$10 seniors/$5 students and children

Old Cabell Hall, 8pm, $10/$5 students

First Presbyterian Church, 8pm, $15/$5 students

Sunday, December 9

V. Earl Dickinson Building, 3pm, free

Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing Arts Center, 3:30pm, free

  • Albemarle High School Bands Holiday Concert

AHS Auditorium, 3:30pm, free

Thursday, December 13

  • Charlottesville High School Chorus

Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing Arts Center, 7pm, free

Friday, December 14

Holy Comforter Catholic Church, 7:30pm, donation at the door

Saturday, December 15

Paramount Theater, 2:30 and 7:30pm, $10-50

Wednesday, December 19

  • All-City Bands CHS

Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing Arts Center, 7pm, free

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