Sunday, November 16, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Nov. 15, First Baptist Church

Samuel Barber and Igor Stravinsky are not names commonly associated with "ancient music," but the ears don’t lie: Barber, the American neoromantic, concluded his "Second Essay for Orchestra" with a clear echo of old English modal hymnody; and Stravinsky, the Russian neoclassicist, filled his "Symphony of Psalms" with resonations from the oldest liturgical chants.

Steven Smith, the third of nine candidates for music director to audition to conduct Masterworks concerts with the Richmond Symphony, brought out the antique qualities of the Barber and Stravinsky while clearly etching the harmonic modernism of these works (dating from 1942 and 1930, respectively) and italicizing their woodwind writing, where much of their instrumental discourse occurs.

Smith brought a comparable focus to Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, exposing far more of the work’s inner lines in brass and low strings than one normally hears in this work.

The Stravinsky is the most challenging piece of the program, both musically and logistically. Its orchestration omits violins, violas and clarinets, compensating with oversized complements of flutes, oboes, bassoons and trumpets; about a dozen of the instrumentalists in these performances are freelancers supplementing the orchestra’s regular roster of musicians.

In the concert at First Baptist Church, the Richmond Symphony Chorus was split in two and sang from balconies on either side of the orchestra. This division and elevation of the chorus gives it a hovering quality in any music, and Stravinsky’s more finely grained choral sound compounded that effect.

Smith generally maintained appropriate balances between chorus and orchestra. The choristers, prepared by Erin Freeman, chanted solidly and produced more rarified tonalities quite strikingly. The orchestra’s wind sections sounded unrefined, at times tentative – not surprising among musicians who don’t regularly perform with one another, taking on a piece that really requires an ensemble of solo-quality wind players playing chamber music within an orchestration.

The conductor obtained more satisfying results in the Barber’s active and often intricate wind passages, concentrated in the essay’s central section. The symphony strings were robustly lyrical in the opening section’s main theme (a cousin of Barber’s famous Adagio), and the full ensemble made nobly sonorous work of the hymn-like finale.

Schubert’s Ninth, the "Great C major," is one of the prime examples of this composer writing at "heavenly length." Clocking in at about 50 minutes, this symphony can seem even longer thanks to the composer’s repetition and very methodical development of themes. The variety in Schubert’s orchestral writing lies deep in its innards, in flourishes and echo effects that only a very attentive conductor will expose.

Smith, happily, is such a conductor. Although he chose fairly moderate tempos, the performance did not turn into a laborious read through long paragraphs. Judicious phrasing, attention to dynamics and emphasis on internal details, especially in ornamentation of wind and brass figures, kept the performance moving and kept it from too obviously retracing the same steps.

French horn player Paul LaFollette, oboist Gustav Highstein and clarinetist Ralph Skiano were solo voices of distinction.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. Nov. 17 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).