Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Oct. 15, Richmond Center Stage

It’s doubtful that any cellist could be rated one of the greats without mastering, or at least making a strong impression in playing, Dvořák’s Concerto in B minor. Yet this most familiar of cello concertos isn’t a conventional solo instrument-with-orchestra showpiece – it’s really more of a symphony for cello and orchestra. For much of the work the cello is closely integrated with the orchestra and its soloists (most noticeably, clarinet and violin); and in most of the concerto’s exposed solo passages, Dvořák wants the lyricism of the human voice, not ear-dazzling virtuosity.

The ideal soloist for this piece is one who has the technique of a star instrumentalist but is more conversant with orchestration than the typical soloist, and one who is inclined to play with, rather than in front of, orchestral musicians. Carter Brey, the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, proved to be that ideal soloist in the first of two weekend performances of the Dvořák with the Richmond Symphony.

Both audibly and visibly, Brey was deeply engaged with the orchestra’s performance as well as his own. His understanding of the cello’s role in the piece, leading here, supportive or collaborative there, was consistently on the mark. When called upon to make his instrument sing, it sang, expressively but without a trace of self-indulgence. From start to finish, his was a performance that said, “Listen to Dvořák’s creation,” not, “Listen to me play beautifully.” And the result was music-making of unaffected beauty and genuine nobility.

Conductor Steven Smith and the symphony’s musicians performed at Brey’s high level of technique, expression and concentration. They brought the same qualities to performances of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 and “Fratres,” a 1977 work for strings and percussion by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

The Shostakovich Ninth is a tricky piece, surprisingly cheerful for this composer and the year of its writing (1945). Shostakovich often laced good humor with sarcasm and parody, and does so in this symphony, but with more subtlety than usual. His more somber writing is similarly understated – the tonal-emotional atmosphere is more partly cloudy than overcast. Smith’s interpretation was suitably calibrated, curbing the music’s bumptious enthusiasm (more effectively in the last movement than in the first) and giving the darker inner movements appropriate shades of gray.

The symphony’s strings, who played superbly throughout the program, brought a fine balance of rich tone and austere expression to the Pärt, quite effectively evoking the tone of monastic chant that this piece calls for. Smith just as effectively contoured the performance from deep quiet to high intensity and back.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Oct. 16 in the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $18-$73. Details: (800) 514-3849 (;