Friday, May 16, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

Mark Russell Smith conducting
with Mason Bates, composer-electronica; Edgar Meyer, double-bass
May 16, Second Baptist Church

Mason Bates, the Richmond-bred composer and electronica artist, returns to his hometown this weekend to reprise his "Rusty Air in Carolina," introduced two years with the Winston-Salem (NC) Symphony. The piece, scored for large orchestra and digitally and electronically produced sound effects and rhythms, is a tone poem evoking a summer night in the American South.

"Rusty Air" was the first of a string of orchestral-electronica pieces written in recent years by Bates, a 31-year-old graduate of St. Christopher’s School who went on to study at Columbia and the Juilliard School and now is completing doctoral study at Berkeley. The three-part work combines fairly literal representations of insect and bird noises heard after dark and toward dawn with a densely textured, blues- and jazz-inflected orchestral score.

Electronic and acoustic-instrumental media intersect most closely in the first section, as flutes, harp and percussion echo the chirping of katydids. As the piece progresses, electronica are employed for what Bates calls "ambient clouds of sound," enhancing orchestral sound effects, such as muted brass and fluttering on flutes and other winds, to suggest a humid climate. Syncopated riffs and broadly expressive tunes reinforce this music’s sense of place.

Bates shares the first of this program with Edgar Meyer, the reigning virtuoso of the double-bass. Meyer’s own Concerto in D major (1993), like "Rusty Air," is rooted in the American vernacular, only at the higher elevation of hill country, where fiddle tunes dominate the soundscape.

Accessibly rustic as it is, Meyer’s concerto is much more sophisticated than most exercises in classical-popular "crossover" music. It is structured as a classical concerto; its orchestration is fully fleshed out, colorful and contrapuntal. It often sounds like an American cousin of the tuneful neoclassical works of Respighi or Rodrigo. And it offers plenty of opportunities for its composer and soloist to showcase his remarkable technique.

Meyer makes the bull fiddle a true bass violin, as lyrical, flexible and – yes – brilliant as the other members of the highbrow string family. He plays at a fiddler’s full speed with all of a fiddler’s bag of tricks, and produces notes that are fully rounded and dead-center in pitch.

Before playing his concerto, Meyer delivered a fluent and extroverted rendition of the 19th-century double-bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini’s Concerto No. 2 in B minor, music from the same period and in much the same style as the concertos of Mendelssohn and Chopin.

Conductor Mark Russell Smith and the orchestra, after ably negotiating the divergent demands of Bates, Meyer and Bottesini, complete the program with Brahms’ First Symphony. This is a kind of musical bookend in its timing: the featured work in Smith’s main audition-in-concert prior to his appointment in 1999 as the Richmond Symphony’s music director, now concluding his last subscription concert of his last full season with the orchestra. (He conducts three programs next season, as the first six of nine conductors audition to succeed him.)

The Brahms First remains a showpiece for Smith, but his approach to the piece has evolved in a decade. His tempos this time are markedly more brisk, especially in a blisteringly intense first movement, and romantic touches such as ritards and string portamento are more sparing and more subtly applied.

In the first of three weekend performances, oboist Gustav Highstein, clarinetist Ralph Skiano, French horn player Joy Branagan and concertmaster Karen Johnson were highly expressive in their solos, and timpanist James Jacobson was both crisply rhythmic and richly sonorous.

French horns were seated among other brasses, and their collective weight and volume at times were too much for the strings in the Second Baptist Church sanctuary’s bright acoustic. Balances presumably will differ in other venues.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. May 17 at First Baptist Church and 8 p.m. May 19 at St. Michael Catholic Church. Tickets: $20-$50. Details: (804) 788-1212;