Saturday, September 20, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

Sept. 20, First Baptist Church, Richmond

Mikhail Agrest, a 33-year-old Russian-American conductor currently on the staff of the Mariinsky Theater in his native St. Petersburg, is the first in line – "exhibit A," as he puts it – of nine candidates to succeed Mark Russell Smith as music director of the Richmond Symphony. In selecting Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony as the main attraction of his tryout Masterworks program, Agrest would seem to be playing his strongest suit.

The conductor says the Tchaikovsky Fourth is his favorite symphony, and his affection for it is audible. In the second of three performances with the symphony, no detail of its orchestration eluded him, and he exploited both its drama and its expressive melodies. He also showed a sure grasp of the piece as a musical essay, giving each idea its due without losing sight of the whole.

The most challenging part of the work is its first movement, which Michael Steinberg characterizes as a "large, brooding movement with its latent – and not so latent – waltz content." The composer’s tempo marking, moderato con anima (moderate but animated), compounds the latent with the subjective. Is the big tune a straight-on waltz, or a suggestion of one, or an evocative memory of one? How moderate vs. how animated?

Under Agrest’s direction, it was a very moderately paced, rather delicately phrased suggestion of a waltz. Arguably a nice expressive touch, that pacing and voicing also can sound calculated or artificial. It also can disrupt musical continuity.

This wasn’t the only time in this symphony that the conductor employed old-time "romantic" techniques – slowing down when the music grows more quiet, slowing phrases as they are about to give way to a contrasting (typically louder or more dramatic) section, speeding up in climaxes. Are these interpretive touches that Agrest reserves for Tchaikovsky and other late-19th century Russian music, or does he take a similar approach in the rest of the romantic repertory?

That question wasn’t really answered in the program’s other romantic offering, Verdi’s "La forza del destino" Overture, an episodic piece in which fairly long silences separate stark fanfares and darkly lyrical tunes from the opera. As in the Tchaikovsky, Agrest played up both the dramatic and the lyrical.

The orchestra gave the conductor all he asked for, maybe more. String articulation was crisp and alert, brasses played with rich sonority and fine ensemble, wind solos were expressive and naturally phrased. A largely reconstituted French horn section made a debut of real distinction.

Curiously, some of the most "Russian" sounds obtained by this Russian-born conductor came in an American work, Christopher Rouse’s Trombone Concerto (1991), an alternately somber and explosive contemplation of war. The tonal core of the piece is the combination of low-register trombone with a choir of bassoons (the only woodwinds in Rouse’s orchestration). They give the concerto’s opening and closing sections a dark, fibrous sound, reminiscent of the more ominous atmospherics of Shostakovich’s symphonic music (which Rouse quotes briefly, along with a tune from the "Kaddish" Symphony of Leonard Bernstein, to whom the concerto is dedicated).

Michael Mulcahy, the Australian-born principal trombonist of the Chicago Symphony, was a resolute, necessarily long-breathed presence throughout the Rouse concerto, darkly stoic in its outer movements (marked "dolorous" and "lugubrious," respectively), angst-ridden but not hysterical in its violent central movement, whose battery of percussion – including an oversized hammer pounding what must be a very solid wooden surface – produces some of the loudest music this orchestra has ever played.

Agrest and the symphony were keenly focused collaborators with Mulcahy, giving Rouse’s subtlest effects as much emotional impact as they did his sonic outbursts.

In his introductory comments, Agrest communicated with passion (on music and international politics) and showed a knack for humor. At work, he proved energetic – crouching and springing a lot, going airborne on a few occasions – and seemed to prefer conducting with his hands instead of a baton. Hands can draw smoother, less articulated instrumental sound than a stick does, but not in these performances.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. Sept. 22 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $28. Information: (804) 788-1212,

The Sept. 22 concert will be broadcast live on WCVE (88.9 FM).

Note to readers: This season I usually will be reviewing the Richmond Symphony's Saturday night Masterworks concerts. I prefer the acoustics of First Baptist Church, and that venue is closer to home, enabling me to reduce my carbon footprint and to avoid sharing the roads on Friday nights with people who seem to think driving is an extreme sport.