Saturday, May 16, 2009

Review: Richmond Symphony

May 16, First Baptist Church

To take his leave of the Richmond Symphony after 10 years as its music director, Mark Russell Smith chose perhaps the most explicit and emotionally complex leave-taking in orchestral music, Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. In the second of three performances of the work, Smith and the symphony delivered a finely detailed account whose greatest poignancy lay in the illumination of those details.

The Mahler Ninth is scored for a massive orchestra, with enlarged woodwind and French horn sections, and is rarely inhibited in its writing for brass and percussion. Strings commonly are hard-pressed to balance all that, and in this performance the church-sanctuary stage was too small to accommodate full-sized string sections. The sparsity of fiddles was evident when, for instance, five violas had to project an internal figuration that gives an ominous undercurrent to the main theme of the first movement, or when, in the finale, a motif is passed from a richly sonorous horn section to five cellos.

Smith, however, made a virtue of the strings’ necessarily lean sonority. Like the late works of many composers, the Mahler Ninth has a skeletal quality, with noticeably less sonic padding and musical connective tissue than one hears in the composer's earlier music. Ample numbers can make this work's string-centered themes, especially the finale’s extended farewell (or dying away), sound warmer and more lush than they really should. In this performance, the strings’ expression was high-romantic but their sound was austere, even stark.

This not only deepened the musical-emotional experience; it also clarified some of the qualities of this music – its frequent forays into Bachian counterpoint, for example – that listeners often miss.

The orchestra, with its permanent roster augmented by a number of substitute players among the winds, played with intense concentration and gratifying attention to unusual sonorities (how many different ways does this music rasp?) and precarious balances of voicing.

The seven second violinists deserve special praise for their ensemble and expression, which matter more here than in most orchestral scores. (Mahler, unusually, uses the seconds to introduce several of the work’s big lyrical themes.) French horn player Paul LaFollette delivered consistently fine solos, as did violist Molly Sharp, cellist Neal Cary and concertmaster Karen Johnson. Trumpeter Rolla Durham paced the brass section, whose production of muted tones was expert, and usually perfectly placed within Mahler’s dense orchestral texture.

The score’s one escape from introversion, poignancy and calculated tentativeness is its third movement, marked Burleske. Here, Smith and the orchestra pounced on the music’s energy, humor, vivid effects and full-throated climaxes, heightening the contrast of this movement with the rest of the symphony.

I’ll have more to say about Smith’s musical legacy in Richmond in a subsequent post. For now, I’ll remark that he couldn’t have chosen a more suitable work than the Mahler Ninth for his farewell performances, and that in this piece he makes one of the most distinctive and memorable artistic statements of his Richmond years.

Mark Russell Smith and the Richmond Symphony give their final performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony at 8 p.m. May 18 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $28. Details: (804) 788-1212;

The May 18 concert will be aired live on WCVE (88.9 FM) and its affiliated stations.