Thursday, September 25, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

Sept. 24, The National

Mikhail Agrest, first-in-line of the nine candidates vying to become the Richmond Symphony’s next music director, led the first of two concerts in his second tryout program in the opening of this season’s Kicked Back Classics casual-concert series. The event also marked the orchestra’s debut at The National, the former movie and vaudeville theater in downtown Richmond that reopened earlier this year as a music hall.

As in his Masterworks concerts, the 33-year-old Russian-American conductor displayed dynamism on the podium and showed himself to be an engaging talker, quick with a joke; at times, though, he seemed so stoked on nervous energy that he didn’t quite finish his thoughts.

Agrest framed the mini-concert with Beethoven, opening with the perhaps obligatory but nonetheless mediocre "Consecration of the House" Overture, closing with the far more substantive and potent finale of the Fourth Symphony. In between came bits of Mozart (the finale of the Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola and orchestra), Prokofiev (the gavotte from the "Classical" Symphony) and Shostakovich (his orchestration of "Tea for Two"), and several bits of original and adapted Rossini.

Aside from the Beethoven symphony excerpt, the program’s largest-scaled offering was Rossini’s "La gazza ladra" ("The Thieving Magpie") Overture, the first great symphonic treatment of a waltz tune. In his Masterworks dates, Agrest distended the waltz theme of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony; here, he gave Rossini’s waltz a thoroughly idiomatic swirl across the floor.

Agrest emphasized colorful and characterful details in the Shostakovich and in Benjamin Britten’s potpourri of Rossini themes, "Soirées Musicales." The conductor led animated, interpretively straightforward accounts of the two Beethoven selections and the Mozart, which featured the refined, well-balanced duo of concertmaster Karen Johnson and principal violist Molly Sharp.

The National is an oddly configured space for classical music, with no seating on the ground floor, VIP-only seating in the front balcony (largely vacant on this occasion) and regular seating only in the upper balcony. A lot of empty space separated the orchestra from most of its audience. (The Sunday-afternoon family edition of the series presumably will draw a lot of youngsters who don’t mind sitting on the floor.)

Unamplified orchestral music sounds warm and full-bodied but short on brilliance and resonance in this hall, making The National an acoustical near-twin of the nearby Carpenter Center, at least as it sounded before its closure for renovation. An acoustical upgrade is part of the renovation of that hall, which will be the symphony's principal venue when it reopens as the Carpenter Theatre in the Richmond CenterStage arts complex.

The family edition of this Kicked Back Classics program begins with pre-concert activities at 3 p.m., followed by the concert at 4 p.m., Sept. 28 at The National, 708 E. Broad St. Tickets: $17. Details: (804) 788-1212,