Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Erin R. Freeman conducting
March 7, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

The Richmond Symphony’s chamber-orchestra series, this season re-christened as Metro Collection, has long boasted the orchestra’s most adventurous and imaginative programs. This weekend’s edition was no exception.

The soloist was Lynette Wardle, the symphony’s principal harpist, who was featured in "Sones en la Giralda" ("Sounds of the Giralda," the Moorish minaret-turned-cathedral tower of Seville) by the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo and Maurice Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, originally scored for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet, here played with a string orchestra.

Bracketing those works were the Sinfonia in D major of the 18th-century Afro-Caribbean composer Joseph Boulogne, known after his emigration to France as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and the Symphony in C major of the 17-year-old Georges Bizet.

Only the Bizet has as much as a toehold in the standard orchestral repertory; but all of the selections delight and reward listeners ranging from connoisseurs to classical newcomers.

Wardle, who is also principal harpist of the Albany (NY) Symphony, set just the right tone and degree of sound presence in both the Rodrigo, which positions the harp within the orchestration, largely as a vehicle for evocative sound effects, and the Ravel, in which the instrument is the musical protagonist. Wardle’s tone production was refined and her rhythmic sense spot-on, and she showed a knack for shining as a solo voice without resorting to gratuitous affect. In her hands, a glissando is a glissando, not a swoon.

The harpist and orchestra nicely contrasted the nocturnal opening of "Sones en la Giralda" with its festive, outdoorsy second section, and were especially effective at bringing out the Moorish/Arabic undertones that Rodrigo sprinkles through the score. The Ravel lost none of its pointilistic detail in this orchestration, devised by Freeman and members of the orchestra.

Boulogne/Saint-Georges was dubbed "the black Mozart" by his Parisian contemporaries. This compact three-movement sinfonia, which served as the overture to his ballet "L’amant anonyme" ("The Anonymous Lover"), adheres to the early classical or rococo style of the young Mozart, the Haydn brothers and other composers at work in the third quarter of the 18th century. The piece served as a fitting companion to the Bizet symphony, as both are built on elegant elaborations on simple, even banal, figures and snatches of melody.

Freeman and the orchestra delivered readings of both elegance and energy, with supple string playing and emphatic accenting. Oboist Gustav Highstein was unindulgently soulful as the lead voice of the Bizet symphony’s adagio; the winds and low strings nicely impersonated the sound of the Gallic bagpipe in the finale.