Saturday, October 27, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

with pianist Jeremy Denk
Oct. 26, University of Richmond

Since the Richmond Symphony moved into temporary venues pending renovation of the Carpenter Center, the orchestra has not presented a piano concerto in a mainstage concert. (Most of the church sanctuaries in which it now plays can accommodate a concert grand or an orchestra, but not both.) So, its 50th anniversary gala featuring Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 would have been a treat regardless of the soloist.

Fortunately, the soloist was Jeremy Denk, who is not just a first-rate pianist but an artist who values music-making over mere performance.

Technical mastery and an ear for the grand gesture may suffice (if not satisfy) in the "Emperor" Concerto, but the Fourth needs more. This is music that thinks aloud, ponders the implications of its material, tests extremes of dynamism and expression. Its nearest relations in the Beethoven canon are not the other concertos, but the sonatas that are too subtle and rife with ambiguity to be saddled with nicknames.

Denk is the ideal interpreter of music that defies glib characterization or facile execution. He has the chops to conceive an ideal reading of a score and make it happen, but he doesn’t settle for that. He probes a composition, leading an exploration in which the listener is not just a witness but a participant. Is that what the composer meant? he wonders, and so do you. And so what if the answer is no? Posing the question enriches the experience in a way that a predictably "correct" rendition never could.

His performance was not one for the ages, but of the moment. It was nervy and impetuous, imperfect in its rendering of this arpeggio or that accompanying passage; perhaps it sprinted when it should have jogged, or lingered when it might better have moved on. But it was palpably, insistently alive – and for that reason, compelling from first note to last.

Conductor Mark Russell Smith and the orchestra were alert, engaged partners in Denk’s odyssey, contributing full-blooded sonority, crisp articulation, whiplash accents and consistently singing tone. It’s hard to imagine a more telling realization of the contrast of tentative piano and emphatic orchestra that propels the concerto’s slow movement.

The program was a re-creation of the one devised by the symphony’s founding music director, the late Edgar Schenkman, for the orchestra’s 1957 debut. Schenkman’s selection of the Beethoven Fourth instead of a more crowd-pleasing concerto, and of the deeply musical but unglamorous Mieczyslaw Horszowski to play it, speaks eloquently to the grounding this orchestra received from the start.

Schenkman’s program (heard in this re-creation by three of his children) also featured Mendelssohn’s "Scottish" Symphony (No. 3), one of the great meldings of tune-spinning, orchestration and symphonic form, plus an appetizer in the early baroque Toccata of Girolamo Frescobaldi as arranged by Hans Kindler (austere compared with the Bach extravaganzas produced by Leopold Stokowski around the same time) and a dessert in Glinka’s giddily exuberant "Russlan and Ludmilla" Overture.

During the first half of the concert, the orchestra sounded to be adjusting on the fly to Camp Concert Hall in the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center; the room's bright, almost clinically detailed acoustic favors strings and challenges winds to maintain balance. The musicians were better attuned to the space in the Beethoven and Glinka.

The evening opened with a parade of public officials lauding the symphony’s anniversary. Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling credited his son’s academic success to the discipline of musical instruction as a trombonist in the Hanover High School Band and Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra – a connection that few public-policy makers understand, let alone acknowledge.

The most moving extramusical moment came in the recognition of – and ovation for – violinist Elizabeth Moore, the last charter member still performing in the orchestra.