Friday, September 14, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

with David Bilger, trumpet
Sept. 14, Second Baptist Church, Richmond

The Richmond Symphony launches its 50th anniversary season with "Don Juan" by Richard Strauss, one of the signature numbers of the orchestra’s fourth and current music director, Mark Russell Smith.

In the opening-night concert, Smith led an extrovered, dramatically charged account of the tone poem, with fine articulation from the strings, rich sonority from the horns and fine solos from oboist Gustav Highstein and horn player Paul LaFollette.

David Bilger, principal trumpeter of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is the weekend’s guest soloist, playing the Trumpet Concerto (1949) by the Armenian-Soviet composer Alexander Arutiunian. The concerto, cut from the same Russo-Oriental cloth as Borodin’s "Polovtsian Dances" and Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Scheherazade," is a tuneful showcase for virtuoso trumpeter.

Bilger displayed both the requisite chops – the more notes per minute, the more he thrived – and a helpful sensitivity to passages requiring coloration darker than that usually given to this instrument. His phrasing and colors were especially satisfying in the concerto’s central slow section, played with a mute.

In an encore, Bilger pranced merrily through "Carnival of Venice," the greatest hit of cornet virtuosos at the turn of the 20th century.

The program concludes with the Seventh Symphony of Dvořák. Brahms was both a mentor and an inspiration to Dvořák; but, even when working from a Brahmsian template, as he was in this symphony, Dvořák speaks with an entirely different rhythmic, melodic, coloristic and spiritual vocabulary.

The difference, especially the rhythmic difference, was muddled in the Sept. 14 performance. Dvořák’s dance rhythms really need to swing, but didn’t; and several of the finale’s syncopated passages were trainwrecks. Imbalance between strings and brass, a constant hazard in the acoustics of Second Baptist Church, were pronounced.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. Sept. 15 at First Baptist Church, Monument Avenue at Boulevard in Richmond, and 8 p.m. Sept. 17 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20-$50. Information: (804) 788-1212;