Sunday, January 20, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

Mark Russell Smith conducting
Jan. 19, First Baptist Church, Richmond

Mark Russell Smith will continue as music director of the Richmond Symphony through the 2008-09 season, but this month’s Masterworks series concerts may turn out to be the artistic culmination of his decade in Richmond.

The program is devoted entirely to the Austro-German classical and romantic repertory in which Smith has excelled. Its main attraction is the Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner, whose massive, austere symphonies Smith has conducted most memorably, if not always to the most enthusiastic receptions from musicians and audiences.

This Ninth is the best of Smith’s Bruckner, a performance of technical precision, intense concentration, imposing sonority, reverence and passion. This interpretation reveals the internal logic of the composer’s rocky streams of consciousness, not just making sense of movements that meander through long explications and lurch between dissimilar themes and contrasting tones of voice, but making Bruckner’s often ungainly musical syntax sound like epic sacred poetry. It also fully vents the Wagnerian sensuality of lyrical themes, a quality rarely heard in performances of Bruckner's late works.

The orchestra played keenly and sensitively in the Jan. 19 concert. A smallish complement of 40 strings held its own against oversized (and elevated) brass choirs, and eight French horns (four of the players doubling on Wagner tubas in the final adagio) sounded far more cohesive and refined than might be expected from two regular and six substitute players. Horn player Paul LaFollette, oboist Gustav Highstein and clarinetist Ralph Skiano were fluent and expressive in their solos, and flutist Mary Boodell found just the right tone for her elusive balancing act with the Wagner tubas.

Bruckner’s unfinished Ninth – he died, in 1896, while still struggling to compose a final fourth movement – was preceded by the best-known of unfinished symphonies, Schubert’s two-movement Symphony in B minor, long numbered his Eighth, now listed as his Seventh. (Its nickname notwithstanding, available evidence suggests that Schubert considered it a finished symphony; several attempts to tack on two more movements have not improved it.)

Smith and the orchestra emphasized the symphony's abundant lyricism, but not at the expense of its emotional turbulence. String and wind timbres were suitably dark, and, in a refreshing departure from the usual treatment of this frequently played piece, collective string tone was not excessively lush or sweet.

The program opens with six German dances that Mozart wrote for the court balls of Vienna in the late 1780s. Each of the first five could serve as the menuet of a garden-variety classical-period symphony. The sixth is enlivened by "Turkish" percussion – side drum and cymbals – and complementary effusions from high winds.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. Jan. 21 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road, in Glen Allen. Tickets: $28. Details: (804) 788-1212,