Sunday, March 6, 2011

Review: Richmond Symphony

March 6, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

In this weekend's Masterworks concerts, Thomas Hooten, principal trumpeter of the Atlanta Symphony, joined the Richmond Symphony and its music director, Steven Smith, in the Trumpet Concerto of Henri Tomasi, a French composer best-known for writing concertos for instruments other than piano, violin or cello.

The concerto is a late-ish (1948) example of the urbane neo-classical style, spiced with blues and jazz, espoused first by Stravinsky and Ravel, subsequently by the composers of "Les Six," especially Milhaud and Poulenc.

Tomasi calls for fast changes by the trumpeter, to and from a couple of mutes, and from terse, rat-a-tat trumpet calls to more lyrical or atmospheric playing. Hooten ran those changes with expert technique and an ear for colors and textures not ordinarily associated with this instrument. Even muted, a trumpet projects more strongly than most solo instruments in concertos; that gave Smith and the orchestra unusually free rein to accompany the soloist energetically and with vivid color.

The program opened with "Dancers, Dreamers and Presidents" by Daniel Bernard Roumain, a 40-year-old American composer of Haitian descent who styles himself DRB. The Richmond Symphony is one of several orchestras that commissioned the work through the Sphinx Organization, which seeks to give African-American and Latino composers a higher profile in symphonic music.

The fleeting (21-second) but resonant impression of future president Barack Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres in a 2007 appearance on her talk show inspired DRB to write this piece, whose three-movement, fast-slow-fast construction and grounding in dance rhythms recall the sinfonias of the mid-18th-century rococo or early classical style. The fast sections' funk/hip-hop drumbeats and Latin riffs obviously come from different times and places.

On first hearing, I sensed a latter-day film-noir vibe in the outer movements and an existential-tragic tone, à la Shostakovich, in the central section. From the perspective of a rear-orchestra seat, I heard too much of the drums and not enough of an eventful and colorful orchestration, which may be why I found the fast sections relentlessly repetitious. Smith and the symphony performed as if they were very much in DRB's groove.

The second half of the program was devoted to Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, the "Pathétique." My invariable response to this work is, "Shut up and die already," so my assessment of any performance of it is highly suspect. I found this one to be very well-played, felicitous in detail, with more forward motion and less bathos than usual – which probably means it was too fast and insufficiently heart-rending.