Sunday, February 22, 2009

Review: Richmond Symphony

Arthur Post conducting
Feb. 21, First Baptist Church

In the second of his three Masterworks series dates with the Richmond Symphony, Arthur Post, the sixth of nine music-director candidates to appear with the orchestra this season and next, conducted performances of two very different first symphonies, those of Beethoven and Shostakovich, very differently.

In the Beethoven, Post’s gestures were broad and his tempos were on the slow side. One got a sense of, "We all know how this goes. Let’s polish it off." The performance was agreeable, string parts nicely defined but some loose strands in the winds, altogether under-energized and not quite in focus.

The Shostakovich, in contrast, was razor-sharp. Post’s direction was economical in gesture, hyper-alert to every detail of articulation, balance and dynamics. The orchestra responded with a performance that was brisk in execution, intense in expression, rich in color and contour. Tightly as he controlled the pace, Post left space for oboist Gustav Highstein and half a dozen other principal players to deliver solos of refinement and character. Even at slow tempos – and much of this work is very slow – there was no lag in momentum or dissipation of energy.

Could this be a manifestation of the two-generation rule I posited last week (see "Rating today’s conductors"), that conductors (and classical musicians generally) tend to be more engaged in music of their generation and the previous generation than in works of more distant history? Post's performances seemed to follow the rule; but then there was the Boccherini Cello Concerto.

Or, more accurately, the Cello Concerto in B flat major assembled from various pieces by Luigi Boccherini, orchestrally "upholstered" (Post’s term) and reharmonized by Friedrich Grützmacher, a 19th-century German cellist, composer and prolific arranger of other composers’ works. The Boccherini concerto is said to date from 1780; but this and most other) performances of it actually present music that was assembled and arranged by Grützmacher and published in 1895.

Too much information? Perhaps; but some explanation seems in order for a piece in which the cello solo echoes and amplifies 18th-century classical style, while the orchestral accompaniment echoes Schumann, Bruch, Brahms and even Richard Strauss.

Neal Cary, the symphony’s principal cellist, and Post deftly melded the contrasting styles that rub shoulders in this piece. The cellist applied judicious vibrato to warm up the clean lineality of his part – and adorned the first and last movements with cadenzas of quasi-romantic expressiveness and portent – while the conductor gave Grützmacher’s upholstery idiomatically romantic richness without letting it get too plush or turgid.

To hear Post’s handling of Grützmacher as a hint of his way with Brahms may be a stretch. Or maybe not.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. Feb. 23 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $28. Details: 9804) 788-1212;