Saturday, March 20, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Erin R. Freeman conducting
March 20, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

Richmond’s long good-luck streak with solo artists substituting on short notice – which led to the local debuts of pianists Yefim Bronfman and Jean-Yves Thibaudet and chanteuse Ute Lemper, among others – continues this weekend with the young violinist Elena Urioste, who was called in when illness forced Tai Murray to cancel a pair of performances of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Richmond Symphony.

While the Tchaikovsky was not the ideal vehicle for the lean, lithe and focused tone that Urioste drew from her fiddle in the first of two weekend concerts, she displayed a suitably high-romantic temperament in the nobly passionate big tune and lengthy cadenza of the opening movement, unusual sensitivity in the central canzonetta, and impressive technique in the dazzling finale.

Conductor Erin R. Freeman and the orchestra gave Urioste warm and sonorous, although occasionally overpowering, support. These musicians’ frequent performances of Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores echoed through their colorful and graceful playing in the last two movements of the concerto.

The Tchaikovsky is the centerpiece of a program marking the local launching of "Minds Wide Open: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts," a festival of performing and visual arts that will continue through June. Compensating for Tchaikovsky’s wrong gender were not just a female conductor and soloist, but also a bit of history: Freeman noted that the concerto was introduced in this country by Maud Powell, one of the first women to build a career as a solo violinist. Preceding and following the Tchaikovsky were works by female composers.

"D’un matin de printemps" ("On a Morning in Spring"), a short, eventful and vividly colorful sample of the French impressionist style by Lili Boulanger, the short-lived younger sister of the great French pedagogue and conductor Nadia Boulanger, drew an animated and tonally polished reading from the orchestra.

Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra (2002) presented the orchestra with one of its biggest challenges of the season. Written for a virtuoso ensemble (the Philadelphia Orchestra), the piece at one point or another spotlights every solo player and every section, often with novel sound effects that require unusual techniques, frequently in pretty heavy orchestral traffic.

The Higdon concerto is a different kind of "eye music" – not a piece that looks better on the score than it sounds in performance (the term was coined as a rap on hard-to-decipher modern compositions), but one that makes the listener’s eyes dart around the orchestra in search of the sources of sounds. Plucked and slapped fiddles, bowed percussion, muted and sliding string and wind effects and unusual instrumental combinations keep the eyes almost as busy as the ears. And the ears can be awfully busy trying to keep up with Higdon’s sometimes overt, sometimes sly evocations of virtually every major composer of the mid-20th century.

Freeman led an energetic, well-balanced performance from musicians who clearly relished their challenges. Episodes of shaky brass ensemble kept it from being a truly virtuoso performance.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. March 21 at the Carpenter Theatre, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $17-$72. Details: (800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster);