Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Daisuke Yamamoto, violin
April 18, Richmond CenterStage

The Richmond Symphony’s Masterworks series greets spring with two helpings of grandeur and a generous side order of brooding high-romanticism.

The grandeur comes from Edward Elgar, the leading musical voice of Edwardian Britain, and – perhaps surprisingly – from Benjamin Broening, the University of Richmond music professor best-known as director of the Third Practice Electroacoustic Music Festival.

Broening’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” receiving its premiere in the weekend’s symphony concerts, is purely acoustic, traditionally orchestrated, couched in a modern but hardly radical idiom, attuned to the latter-day impressionism that has become widespread in contemporary American composition.

The five-movement work draws its title and much of its inspiration from a 1923 poem by Wallace Stevens evoking a sea voyage from New York to California through the Panama Canal. Broening’s music sounds less representative of the sea itself than of its energies and those of the atmosphere around it – one hears wind more than water. The piece is highly colorful, but more primary colored than the pastel hues favored by the early 20th-century impressionists.

The composer clearly knows what impressions he wishes to impart – the movement titles are strings of unambiguous adjectives – and audibly knows how to use the resources of a large orchestra to vivid effect.

Elgar showed a similar mastery in his “Enigma Variations” (1899), a set of sound portraits of 14 friends (“13 and a dog,” to be precise) that range from the monumentally declaratory to the skittishly playful to the wistfully noble (the famous “Nimrod”).

Conductor Steven Smith and the symphony reveled in both the Broening and the Elgar in the first of two weekend performances. The more dramatic the gesture or complex the interplay of voices, the better they performed.

Daisuke Yamamoto, the orchestra’s concertmaster, is the program’s featured soloist, playing the Violin Concerto in D minor of Jean Sibelius. This is one of the most elusive of virtuoso violin concertos, both because of its considerable technical challenges and because of its peculiar expressive quality, simultaneously highly romantic and emotionally reserved.

Yamamoto showed a firm grasp of the Sibelius rhetorically, especially in the concerto’s central adagio. Technically, the performance I heard displayed stretches of darkly sonorous beauty and weighty expressivity, but altogether was more effortful than fluent.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. April 19 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$78; details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX),