Saturday, May 12, 2007

Review: VSO & RSO

Virginia Symphony & Richmond Symphony
May 11, Jamestown Festival

One of the joys of occasional music – written for a specific, usually ceremonial event – is the sometimes comically disconnected afterlife of occasional pieces that outlast their occasions.

In most American cities, for example, the music of choice to celebrate Independence Day is Tchaikovsky’s tonal depiction of Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign to conquer Russia. The "1812 Overture" overcomes its irrelevance to the occasion with good tunes and sufficient loudness to stand up to the accompaniment of fireworks and artillery.

The same can be said of "The American Dream" by James A. Beckel Jr., the fireworks-garnished finale of a joint concert by the Virginia Symphony of Norfolk and the Richmond Symphony, launching a weekend of performances in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement.

Beckel did not write this earnestly tuneful, cinematically colorful piece for this occasion. "The American Dream" is from "Night Visions," a suite written in 1992 in tribute to Mr. and Mrs. Charles O’Drobinak; "The American Dream," the composer writes, "was meant to pay particular tribute to Mr. O’Drobinak in his success as CEO of Price Waterhouse."

Next to celebrating the Fourth of July with "La Marseillaise" and "God Save the Tsar," celebrating "America’s 400th Anniversary" with a paean to an accounting executive seems almost topical.

The combined orchestras introduced four pieces that were written for this occasion. The one that sounds likeliest to endure, at least in symphonic programs, is "Settlements" by the Virginia-based composer Adolphus Hailstork. Beginning in a long flute solo echoing American Indian song, nicely phrased and inflected by the Richmond Symphony’s Mary Boodell, this compact tone poem grows into a rhythmically intricate and exuberantly brassy showpiece.

John Duffy draws more explicitly on American Indian themes in "Indian Spirits," which builds a tom-tom beat into a percussive array, à la Stravinsky, sweetened by melodies and touches of orchestration evoking misty dawns and broad horizons.

Jennifer Higdon’s "Spirit," a shortish fanfare for brass and percussion, is skeletal in texture and bluntly ceremonial in expression. John Corigliano’s "Jamestown Hymn" juxtaposes a chorale-like tune with fanfares, briefly and forgettably.

The program was fleshed out with Wagner’s "Flying Dutchman" Overture, John Adams’ "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" and the march finale from Hindemith’s "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber," conducted by Mark Russell Smith, the Richmond Symphony’s music director. Smith also led the Corigliano and Hailstork premieres. JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Virginia Symphony, conducted the Duffy, Higdon and Beckel pieces, as well as Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony.

This was the first time the orchestras have collaborated in a concert. Whatever rapport and collective sonority they may have developed were offset by their placement deep under a sound-deadening tent and a wildly imbalanced sound mix that buried strings under winds and percussion.