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Friends in Cello Places

The Richmond Festival of Music lets the audience get intimate with the music.



Artistic director" is a pretty high-falutin title for a guy who hangs posters. But that's James Wilson's mission on a recent visit in advance of his Richmond Festival of Music. Once the festival (March 8-18) gets under way, he could find himself shuttling artists from the airport, pitching in as a stagehand and handling other chores seemingly unrelated to playing the cello in chamber music.

Wilson, a 42-year-old native of Ann Arbor, Mich., arrived here in 1990 to join the Shanghai Quartet, then based at the University of Richmond. He left the Shanghai after 10 years, but stayed in town to direct the string program in the Virginia Commonwealth University music department and run a chamber-music academy for young people. In 2004, he says, he decided "to go back to playing for my supper" as a freelance cellist, and he moved to New York.

"But I didn't want to cut my ties," Wilson says. "I like this community. I made a lot of friends here, and I'd spent so much of my professional life here." So, with a former pupil, Durwood Felton, and a few others, Wilson launched his Richmond festival before he left town. He had a ready model in the Staunton Music Festival, directed by his partner, Carsten Schmidt, a harpsichordist and pianist. "There's a lot of symbiosis," Wilson says, with the festivals sometimes sharing artists and repertory.

For Richmond's festival, he needs quick studies who work and play well together, because many will be playing pieces for the first time. The festival's 13 artists face, among other things, an obscure string-quintet arrangement of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata (originally for violin and piano), Johann Strauss' "Emperor" Waltz as arranged by Arnold Schoenberg (not as scary as you might imagine), and modern chamber works from Jewish and Chinese traditions, as well as more familiar (but hardly easy) pieces by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Brahms.

Recruiting musicians and devising programs make for an ongoing balancing act. "An event like this is very intense for musicians," Wilson says. "We're putting together a lot of things fast" — not just getting the notes right but building the rapport and interaction that, in a suitably intimate space, pulls the listener into the musical experience.

He builds his roster mostly with "people I've worked with, and whose personalities I think will mesh," he says. "I start with the pieces I want to play and then invite artists, but frequently I'll change the repertory to play to a musician's strength."

On a $25,000 budget, the cellist and a six-member Richmond board finance four concerts and two Ear Project "informances," in which Wilson guides the audience through a composition before it's performed.

Wilson hopes the festival will grow, but not at the expense of its close interaction between musicians and listeners. "We started this to present chamber music in new, less stuffy ways," he says, "and that's what we'll continue to be about." S

The Richmond Festival of Music features four chamber-music concerts: at Second Presbyterian Church March 8 and 15 at 8 p.m. and March 11 at 4 p.m.; and at the Virginia Holocaust Museum March 18 at 5 p.m. Tickets are $22. 519-2098.

Visit Richmond Festival of Music online.

Wilson and friends also present free Ear Project informances March 10 at 11 a.m. at The Hermitage at Cedarfield and March 17 at 11 a.m. in the Gellman Room of the Richmond Public Library. 519-2098.

Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at


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