Friday, October 2, 2009

Review: Richmond Symphony

Oct. 2, Oates Theater, Collegiate School

After a first tryout in splashy orchestral-choral spectaculars, Alastair Willis, latest of the music-director candidates to conduct the Richmond Symphony, turns this weekend to a program of standards for chamber orchestra. The better attributes he brought to last weekend’s concerts – close attention to voicings, timbres and balances, pouncing on accents, emphasizing dynamics – came through in this program as well.

Karen Johnson, the symphony’s concertmaster, is the soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D major, K. 211 – which, remarkably, had not been programmed by this orchestra until now. This is early-ish Mozart, dating from 1775, when the 19-year-old composer still adhered mostly to the tuneful and decorous rococo or early classical style. The concerto anticipates the comic and wistful operatic arias of the mature Mozart, and Johnson’s reading emphasized those hints of things to come.

In the second of three performances of the concerto, the violinist’s tone was sweet but with an expressive edge, rather like that of the young but self-possessed women of the operas – Susanna in “The Marriage of Figaro,” say, or Despina in “Così fan tutte.” As concertmasters-turned-soloists tend to be, Johnson was always attentive to the orchestra’s accompaniment and the soloist's relationship to it; but she was not reticent in taking the lead and fully exploiting the violin's moments. Her performances of the cadenzas of the first and second movements were virtuosic without flash, and came across as playful or lyrical ruminations on the music previously heard – what a cadenza is supposed to be, but too rarely succeeds in being, in a concerto performance.

Willis is one of just two of the nine music-director candidates to audition with a Beethoven symphony. (Evidence, if you needed it, that we are in the early 21st century, not the early 20th.) Arthur Post conducted the First Symphony last season; Willis is conducting the Fourth Symphony this weekend. A good choice, as this relatively under-performed work is a microcosm of symphonic Beethoven, with virtually all the expressive devices, techniques of thematic development and structural nuts-and-bolts that the composer employed in the larger, better-known symphonies.

Willis paced, phrased and accented the Fourth as a classical symphony, but acknowledged the romantic tradition of Beethoven interpretation as he broadened the tempo in the adagio and downshifted markedly in the trio sections of the scherzo. The violins played with a nice bloom balancing warmth and brilliance – no mean feat in this acoustically dry space – and the low strings sounded hefty and assertive.

The opening piece, Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” showcased a wind section in excellent form and drew a more brilliant, primary-colored collective tone from the fiddles. The conductor opted for a brisk, sunny reading of the piece.

This program, opening the symphony’s new Metro Collection series, repeats at 3 p.m. Oct. 4 at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St. in Ashland. Tickets: $20. Details: (800) 927-2787 (Ticketmaster);