Friday, April 20, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

with violinist Jessica Lee
April 20, Bon Air Baptist Church, Richmond

The Richmond Symphony’s final Beethoven Festival program was set more than a year ago, but seemed almost prescient on what turned out to be a day of mourning for the victims of the April 16 rampage at Virginia Tech. The musical and emotional trajectory of Copland’s "Appalachian Spring," Vaughan Williams’ "The Lark Ascending" and Beethoven’s "Pastoral" Symphony punctuated a tragic week on a note of hope and renewal.

"The Lark Ascending," the tone poem Vaughan Williams wrote during World War I and introduced in 1921, sounded more human than avian, with an earthy bittersweetness underlying its fine threads of melody, in the hands of violinist Jessica Lee. The Richmond-born prodigy, who went on to Curtis and Juilliard and won first prize in the 2005 Concert Artists Guild International Competition, performed with fluency and spontaneity, building her interpretation from a heartfelt but scrupulous reading of the solo-violin soliloquy at the center of the work.

Conductor Mark Russell Smith chose the original chamber orchestration of "Appalachian Spring," but led the concert suite rather than the original ballet score. The clean, unaffected sonorities of clarinetist Ralph Skiano and flutist Mary Boodell and alert accents of pianist John Walter compensated for a string ensemble that started out sluggishly.

Beethoven’s "Pastoral" is one of the most difficult symphonies in the repertory. It is chamber music on symphonic scale, evenly distributing music-making among many instruments. Phrases are commonly passed among sections or soloists. Rhythms often sound afloat or aloft. Sound effects, evocative asides and bits of musical humor need to be heard, but shouldn’t make more than passing impressions in the lyrical sweep of this symphony.

Smith led a classically scaled orchestra, with 22 strings and with first and second violins divisi, in a nicely paced, well-articulated account. Low strings sounded underpowered in Beethoven’s flat-footed dances, but otherwise a merry assembly tended the garden with energy and enthuasiasm.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. April 22 in Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. Tickets: $27. Information: (804) 788-1212 or