Saturday, November 10, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

Nov. 9, Bon Air Baptist Church

The Richmond Symphony’s Bach Festival series, like its predecessors spotlighting Mozart and Beethoven, both samples the composer’s music and examines his influence on subsequent generations. The links may be explicit (the Mozart homages of the 19th and 20th centuries, for example), but more often the connections have been inferential.

Some of both filled the second Bach Festival program. Alongside the "Brandenburg" Concerto No. 3, conductor Mark Russell Smith led Stravinsky’s similarly scaled and comparably spirited "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto and Webern’s orchestral arrangement of the Ricercare from Bach’s chamber collection "The Musical Offering."

Then there was Richard Strauss’ suite drawn from incidental music that he wrote for two productions of Molière’s "Le bourgeois gentilhomme," staged in 1912 and 1918 by Max Reinhardt’s Kleine Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Strauss’ template was not Bach, but a musician of the previous generation: Jean-Baptiste Lully, court composer of Louis XIV, king of France in the late 17th century.

Smith and the orchestra made a very persuasive case for reviving this fairly obscure bit of Strauss, which cannily balances echoes of "ancient" music – especially in "Entrance of Cléonte," a theme of Lully’s that Strauss barely modernized – with original music that is unmistakably Straussian but still complements a baroque-period comedy of manners. (Strauss, a bourgeois gent himself, treats the arriviste subject of the play more sympathetically than Lully did.)

The symphony’s chamber orchestra was idiomatically Straussian in its vivid colorations and voluptuous tone, and the score’s numerous solos and cameos for violin, cello, woodwinds and piano received polished and characterful treatment.

The same stylishness and exuberance propelled this performance of "Dumbarton Oaks," a 1938 opus that is among the wittiest, and may be the most cheerful, music that Stravinsky produced.

The third "Brandenburg," played without a conductor by trios of violinists, violists and cellists and a single double-bass from the symphony’s front stands, joined by continuo harpsichordist Joanne Kong, was nicely animated but not consistently focused intonationally.

The Bach-Webern Ricercare suffered from imbalance between strings and winds (especially brass), a problem the orchestra often has in the Bon Air Baptist Church sanctuary.

This program is the only installment of the Bach Festival that won’t get a Sunday-matinee repeat at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. The Strauss, an attractive piece and a very effective showcase for the orchestra’s leading players, deserves further airing.