Friday, May 9, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

Mark Russell Smith conducting
Karen Johnson & Madison Vest, violins
May 9, Bon Air Baptist Church

The Richmond Symphony’s four-part Bach Festival has been a mixed bag, programmatically and executionally, but this weekend’s finale marks a satisfying peak on both counts.

Throughout the series, the orchestra has see-sawed between "historically informed" Bach, fast-paced with low-vibrato strings and period-styled phrasing and ornamentation, and a more measured pace and the kind of modern instrumental sound applied to repertory from Mozart to Shostakovich.

This time the ensemble splits the difference stylistically, with an ornate Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068, its "Air on a G String" rendered as a brisk near-siciliano and other dance movements with similarly folksy inflections, and a more richly toned reading of the Concerto in D minor, BWV 1043, for two violins, strings and continuo.

In the first of three weekend performances, Karen Johnson, the symphony’s concertmaster, and Madison Vest, a 13-year-old prodigy making her second appearance with the orchestra, were assertive, technically assured and nicely contrasting solo voices, Vest’s second violin a shade warmer and more throaty than Johnson’s brilliant first. The respective violin sections followed their tonal leads, and the full string orchestra played with animation and transparency.

Some musicologists rate tone color as incidental or irrelevant in Bach. Conductor Mark Russell Smith and the symphony players disregarded that highly debatable bit of wisdom in the suite, playing up coloristic contrasts between high and low strings and between strings and trumpets to consistently fine effect.

The symphony's strings gave a warm and well-balanced, if occasionally intonationally shaky, account of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ "Bachianas brasileiras" No. 9, the last of the Brazilian composer’s homages to Bach and one of the most rhythmically striking of the set.

A 15-piece ensemble made good-humored and generally fluent work of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9, a prismatic condensation of late-romantic motifs and rhetorical gestures that often sounds like a less than affectionate parody of a Richard Strauss tone poem – "Ein Heldenleben" for marionettes, maybe.

The program repeats at 7 p.m. May 10 at the Chicago Building, St. Paul’s College, in Lawrenceville, and 3 p.m. May 11 at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, in Ashland. Tickets: $20-$38. Details: (804) 788-1212;