Saturday, October 11, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

Oct. 11, First Baptist Church

Daniel Meyer, second the nine candidates auditioning to become the next music director of the Richmond Symphony, established his classical bona fides last weekend in an all-Haydn program. Meyer, the 36-year-old resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and music director of the Asheville (NC) Symphony and Erie (PA) Philharmonic, is showcased in romantic and contemporary repertory in this weekend's Masterworks program.

In the second of three concerts, Meyer started colorfully with Michael Torke’s "Javelin," written in 1994 for the Atlanta Symphony’s 50th anniversary and with an ear toward the Atlanta Olympics two years later.

Like much of Torke’s orchestral music, this piece could be described as Haydn in future tense – grounded in classical-period form and thematic development, but taking off into modern harmonies and colors and dynamic and rhythmic effects. The string figures and brass choirs of "Javelin" often recall Ravel at his splashiest. Meyer and the orchestra gave the piece a brilliant, energetic reading.

Karen Johnson, the symphony’s concertmaster, was featured soloist in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (1939). The Barber is perhaps the most overtly romantic of the concertos Johnson has played in her annual Masterworks solo outings, and it's well-suited to her focused but unplummy tone and unindulgent lyricism.

Her treatments of the melodies of the concerto’s first two movements were heartfelt, but more dreamily wistful than gushingly emotive – more Audrey Hepburn than Vivien Leigh, so to speak. Johnson had energy and technique to spare in the skittishly animated figures of the finale. The orchestra’s lyricism was less reticent, although Meyer generally kept it reined in sufficiently for the violinist to be heard.

The conductor calls Brahms’ Second Symphony "one of my favorite symphonies of all," and in this performance his affection was evident. Affection, however, at times seemed to outweigh technical considerations.

The tonal warmth, singing quality and gently swinging but propulsive quality of the performance could not be faulted. But internal details were sometimes muddled, notably woodwind conterpoint in the first movement; and balances, especially between strings and brass, were unsteady. Meyer’s accenting, more assertive than that of many conductors in this symphony, was a welcome touch.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. Oct. 13 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $28. Details: (804) 788-1212; That concert will be broadcast live on WCVE (88.9 FM).