Saturday, April 14, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

April 13, Second Baptist Church

April 12 was the 150th anniversary of Edward Elgar’s birth. The Richmond Symphony marks it with performances of the "Enigma" Variations over the weekend. That’s more recognition than the anniversary is getting from most American orchestras.

The British are more creatively dissing Sir Edward: Just in time for the anniversary, his picture is being removed from the £20 note.

In their April 13 concert, conductor Mark Russell Smith and the Richmond Symphony presented the Elgar alongside two other familiar sets of orchestral variations, Brahms’ "Variations on a Theme of Haydn" and Hindemith’s "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber."

(The Hindemith was a late substitution for Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The symphony’s concertmaster, Karen Johnson, who was to be the soloist, is recovering from a broken left pinky finger. She now plans to play the Shostakovich on May 18, 19 and 21.)

Oddly, in the company of Germans "Enigma" sounded less indebted to German romantic tradition than this piece commonly does. That indebtedness is why Elgar is viewed by many modern English musicians as "the composer everyone who came after wanted to shake off," as Norman Lebrecht remarked in an anniversary program on the BBC.

Smith and the orchestra performed the Elgar with ears cocked for bits of color and nuances of inflection and dynamics – almost as if it were French music.

They gave the big, bronzed sonorities of the opening theme, the great "Nimrod" variation and the "E.D.U." finale their due, with bassoons and horns supplying an unusually textured bass. The orchestra's best work, though, came in more lyrical or fanciful sections, paced by string figurations in "H.D. S.-P." and solos by cellist Neal Cary, violist Molly Sharp and clarinetist Ralph Skiano in the lyrical variations.

A similarly fine-tuned sensibility informed the Brahms and Hindemith. Why aren’t these works paired more often? Each begins as a German’s take on a Viennese musical convention – in Brahms’ case, a chorale of Haydn’s time (but not by Haydn) sung by Harmonie (wind octet); in Hindemith’s, a gypsy dance garnished with "Turkish" percussion – and each proceeds as a playful, at times splashy, modernization of tradition.

Smith and the orchestra gave a polished account of the Brahms, bringing out its internal voicings and rhythmic currents while keeping it moving and singing. Up against exuberant brass and percussion, strings sounded recessed and their dynamism underplayed in the Hindemith.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. April 14 at First Baptist Church, Boulevard at Monument Avenue in Richmond, and at 8 p.m. April 16 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20-$60. Information: (804) 788-1212 or