Monday, May 18, 2009

Smith's Richmond decade

Mark Russell Smith probably secured his appointment, in 1999, as music director of the Richmond Symphony with a compelling interpretation of Brahms’ First Symphony. That first impression was underscored in his subsequent work here. He has proved to be a conductor most keenly attuned to the Austro-German, Bach-to-Richard Strauss, traditional "core" of the classical orchestral repertory. Few American conductors of his generation – none of the better-known ones – are more fluent than Smith in this repertory.

In that, he contrasted sharply with his predecessor, George Manahan. Manahan built his reputation on modern and contemporary music and opera (he’s now music director of the New York City Opera). He thrives on rhythmic complexity and polished, vivid tone color; his orchestral sound is tinted with silver. Smith, son of a choral director, schooled in the German symphonic tradition by Max Rudolf and Otto-Werner Mueller, favors a darker, more bronzed orchestral sonority and a warmer, more high-calorie string sound. The two conductors also had different personalities, rehearsal styles, ways of interacting with the musicians.

Not long after Smith took over the orchestra, an anonymous donor financed a retirement buyout that produced large-scale turnover of musicians. Concertmaster Karen Johnson and most of the current roster’s violinists, and several of the key woodwind players, including oboist Gustav Highstein and clarinetist Ralph Skiano, were hired on Smith’s watch. The symphony he leaves behind is, more than figuratively, his orchestra.

Interestingly, none of the six music-director candidates who’ve performed with the symphony to date – three more appear in the fall – has drawn a markedly new sound from the orchestra, even though most have tried out with repertory that Smith didn’t emphasize. Turnover among musicians continues at a pretty steady clip, though, so it won’t be too long before the next music director will own the sound of the symphony.

For most of Smith’s tenure, the symphony has been exiled from its downtown hall, performing in a variety of church sanctuaries and school venues. These smaller rooms (seating 600 to 1,000) with small stages precluded a lot of repertory – no piano concertos, no scores with extensive percussion, no "Heldenlebens" or "Rites of Spring." The extra expense of moving from place to place, and bargain-priced tickets (a top scale of $50, compared with $80+ in Norfolk and Washington), have imposed financial constraints on artistic aspirations. (In fact, economizing on programming began before the symphony left the Carpenter Center.)

Within these constraints, Smith and the orchestra have given some unforgettable performances: the conductor’s revelatory pairing of Wagner’s "Tristan und Isolde" Prelude with Debussy’s "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun;” a Dvořák “New World” Symphony that compared favorably with one I heard a week later from the Vienna Philharmonic (no kidding); monumental, engrossing performances of Bruckner’s Eighth and Ninth symphonies; a Sibelius Second Symphony that was Brucknerian in scale and scope; rich and sparkling readings of Richard Strauss; a deeply humane Brahms "German Requiem" and an almost otherworldly Verdi Requiem. (Another highlight of Smith’s years, performances of Britten’s "War Requiem," took place before the migratory years.)

Wind and string soloists, replacing the missing pianists, injected new repertory, different modes of interaction between soloist and orchestra. The symphony will carry back to the concert hall an unusual sensitivity to and chamber-scale collaboration with soloists.

Most rewardingly, at least from the listener’s perspective, all this has been happening at close range. Outside of a few European cities that are home to state-radio orchestras with studio/concert halls, it’s very rare to hear major symphonic works – Tchaikovsky and Brahms, let alone Bruckner and Mahler – in an 800-seat room. The performer-listener proximity of chamber music in symphonic music has become a habit in Richmond over the past five years, quite possibly a habit that will be hard to break.

Smith exploited the intimacy of the small venues and their potential to give music extra impact, at its softest as well as loudest. Many of my happiest memories of his performances with this orchestra are of felicitous details of orchestration that probably wouldn’t have made a comparable impression (assuming they were even audible) in a large concert hall.

Although he has been a central player amid these game-changing circumstances for the symphony, Smith has been a somewhat distant figure personally. Early in his tenure, he made some well-publicized gestures toward taking part in Richmond life; but in fact he was the symphony’s first commuter conductor. His home is Minneapolis, where his wife, Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, plays French horn in the Minnesota Orchestra. Their two sons have grown from toddlerhood to teen-age during the decade that Smith was music director here, and he was determined to be there for them in these key years of maturing.

Smith – and the symphony musicians, and the symphony audience – can’t help but be disappointed by events over the last 10 years. The delayed development of a downtown performing-arts center left the orchestra playing in makeshift spaces for years longer than it should have. Will the venue it will return to be a significant improvement over the old Carpenter Center for the performance of unamplified music? We won’t know until we hear it. The economic downturn is sure to have an effect on the symphony’s plans for growth, and the musicians’ hopes for better pay and a larger full-time core.

Almost as soon as he arrived here, Smith began living through the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." He recruited a fine young crop of musicians, who gelled as an ensemble more quickly than might be expected in a regional orchestra with a limited concert schedule. The conductor and musicians maintained a high performance standard while migrating among venues with wildly variable acoustics. Smith cut remarkably few corners in the quality and variety of the orchestra’s programming. He made big statements in small places.