Conduct: A-

New experiences are forced by necessity and networking. The Richmond Symphony -- lacking a concert hall and finding much of the classical hit parade logistically out of bounds in small venues — paddles beyond the mainstream. Its three B's in coming months: Bruckner, Bart¢k and Mason Bates. The University of Richmond's Modlin Center parlays its eighth blackbird residency into headline new-music events (and a Grammy nod). Meanwhile, James Wilson and Alexander Paley stake the fortunes of their music festivals on departures from the norm.

Such programming quickens highbrow pulse rates in New York, San Francisco, London and Berlin. But Richmonders habitually "are cautious about testing new waters," says Modlin impresario Kathy Panoff. "When they spend money on classical music, they want name recognition." Are we Googling Osvaldo Golijov yet?

Plays Well With Others: B

Neighboring Hampton Roads boasts a string of new performing-arts centers, along with the six-week Virginia Arts Festival, a season studded with marquee names (Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, James Galway, Cecile Licad) and ticket prices to match: top scales of $80-$90 vs. the $20-$30 for most events here.

What do the Hampton Roadies hear as these stars shine on showplaces? "Ravishing Rachmaninoff," "1812 Overture," Mozart, Mendelssohn and symphonic Led Zeppelin adorn (or clutter) calendars. Here in Richmond, we're getting our quota of warhorses — Schubert, Verdi, Haydn, Brahms — but garnished with fresh tones from Bates, Golijov, Doug Richards, Steve Reich, Edgar Meyer and Stephen Hartke. Ravishing? Probably not, but intriguingly, provocatively alive.

Potential for Development: C+

The exiled symphony's audience has grown and gotten a bit younger, has cheered Hindemith and Penderecki alongside Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, has sat raptly through Bruckner's Eighth and Shostakovich's 14th. Credit that to the impact of listening in close proximity, plus cheap seats.

How many will follow the orchestra back downtown to the renovated Carpenter Theatre in the new CenterStage complex due to open in fall 2009? Patrons fret about parking and can expect what David Fisk, the symphony's executive director, calls "adjusted price structures," aka pricier tickets. That, and pent-up demand, may nudge programming back to comfort-food classics. By then, though, the symphony will have a new music director; and a conductor with artistic vision, strong communicative skills and good contacts in the wider musical world can take listeners in directions they didn't know they wanted to follow.

Meanwhile, at UR, Panoff vows to sustain the Modlin Center's "brand" as an innovative presenter of classical and other music, but warns that skyrocketing artists' fees — $25,000 for a one-night gig is not unusual — will push ticket prices higher.

Contributed support is a nagging worry — not helped by the ArtsFund's anticipation of a 20 percent drop in corporate contributions this year — which promises to turn critical now that the economy seems headed into recession. The symphony now operates in the black on a $4.8 million budget and hopes to enlarge its endowment to $15 million in five years. More income from the endowment will be essential, Fisk says, as donors will be dunned for dollars to keep CenterStage running and give more to emerging arts groups.

"Anybody who thinks the same donors will cover the fundraising needs of the future is in for a rude awakening," says Gus Stuhlreyer, Virginia Opera's general director and CEO. "New sources have to be developed, or the economics won't work."

Grade: B-

The unanswered question: Will Richmond's alt-music coterie and others attuned to contemporary art discover that the sharpest cutting edge in local music is classical? There's a renaissance brewing here; overlook or neglect it, and it won't last.

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

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