Friday, April 27, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

with cellist Nicholas Tzavaras
April 27, Second Baptist Church, Richmond

The Richmond Symphony’s April Masterworks program was meant to culminate this season’s celebration of works introduced by Beethoven 200 years ago – in this instance, the Fourth Symphony and "Coriolan" Overture, premiered in the same concert on March 5, 1807.

The weekend’s concerts, however, have become performances in memory of Alan Paterson, the orchestra’s longtime principal horn player, and Mstislav Rostropovich, the great Russian cellist. (More on each in previous posts.)

In another case of seemingly prescient timing, Nicholas Tzavaras, cellist of the Shanghai Quartet, was already set to play Tchaikovsky’s "Variations on a Rococo Theme," a work Rostropovich knew well and played often. (The piece also has a prominent horn solo, which Paul La Follette played almost elegaically.)

Tzavaras gave the Tchaikovsky an appropriately light touch, playing with generally lean sonority, but without underplaying the set’s richly lyrical sections. As might be expected of a chamber musician, he was attentive to his colleagues onstage – notably, in his duet with flutist Mary Boodell in the fifth variation.

Tzavaras also displayed some uncharacteristic waywardness of pitch and a tendency to slide into (and occasionally past) notes. He looked to be having trouble keeping his instrument firmly anchored, a distraction that presumably will be dealt with before subsequent concerts.

Mark Russell Smith led two of the best performances of Beethoven this orchestra has given in recent years. The musicians played with burnished sonority, surging dynamism and keen attention to internal details, especially of string orchestrations. These concerts use a larger complement of lower strings than those mustered for the Fifth and Sixth symphonies in the separate Beethoven Festival series, and the difference in "bottom" is striking and welcome.

The "Coriolan" is the most overtly theatrical of Beethoven’s overtures, and Smith fashioned an operatic reading, with its turbulence, tension and yearning etched in high relief. His pacing of the Fourth Symphony was slightly broader, and the orchestra’s sound more wide-bodied; but the percolating figures and rhythmic sharp turns that animate this work were clearly audible and cleanly rendered.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. April 28 at First Baptist Church, Monument Avenue at Boulevard in Richmond, and 8 p.m. April 29 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20-$60. The April 29 concert airs live on WCVE (88.9 FM) in Richmond and WCNV (89.1 FM) in Heathsville. Information: (804) 788-1212 or