Monday, February 26, 2007

Bulk filler

The Richmond Symphony’s Beethoven Festival series has now represented the composer twice in a row with hack work – first the "Egmont" incidental music (way downhill after the overture), then a set of German dances. The Fifth and Sixth symphonies bracket these bits of very minor Beethoven on the series' schedule, and the programs range pretty far afield besides. (Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony in a Beethoven festival?)

It suffices to observe that a great composer wrote disposable stuff for specific gigs. No need to actually perform the stuff.

This orchestra plays 12 classical subscription programs per season. On a schedule that limited, there’s no good reason to play bulk filler, certainly not 200-year-old bulk filler.

That’s not to say every selection must be a masterpiece. There’s plenty of less-than-monumental music, old and new, that’s well-crafted and stimulates the imagination and is audience-friendly – and that can fit within the budgetary and artistic constraints of an orchestra playing in church sanctuaries while it awaits reconstruction of a hall.

Mark Russell Smith, the symphony’s music director, has devised some fascinating thematic programs and repertory pairings (Wagner’s "Tristan und Isolde" Prelude and Debussy’s "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," for example) for the full-symphony Masterworks series. More of that kind of thinking needs to go into programming the chamber-orchestra series.

For starters, let ensembles select and play chamber pieces within chamber-orchestra concerts, as they did a couple of seasons ago. The rep was interesting, the performances engaged and engaging, and the practice put the spotlight on the orchestra’s principal asset: its musicians.