Saturday, October 17, 2009

Review: Richmond Symphony

Oct. 17, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

Among young musicians generally, and Russian émigrés especially, all roads led to Paris in the early decades of the 20th century. So it’s not too surprising to find the Richmond Symphony presenting a French-accented program with Prokofiev as its centerpiece, or to hear his Piano Concerto No. 3 fit so comfortably between Debussy’s "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and Berlioz’s "Symphonie fantastique."

Prokofiev sketched this work during an odyssey that took him out of revolutionary Russia, via Siberia and Japan, to the United States; he introduced the concerto in Chicago in 1921. By that time, though, he had settled in Paris, and had absorbed the coloristic and atmospheric language of the French school. (Several generations of it: One hears echoes of Saint-Saëns as well as Ravel.)

In the first of two weekend concerts, pianist Jeremy Denk and conductor Christian Knapp played up the Frenchness of the Prokofiev, emphasizing its wealth of tone colors, bringing a lithe quality to its rhythmic energies and generally giving it a light touch – at least in comparison with the heavy hitting approach so many musicians take with this composer.

Denk played the piano’s many, mostly closely packed notes virtuosically and with nervy energy, but not too loudly, and with ears keenly attuned to the piano’s almost constant interaction with the orchestra. This give-and-take proved especially fruitful in the concerto’s central andantino, but also enhanced the finale, which, for a change, did not sound like a crowd rushing the exit.

Knapp, the eighth of nine candidates auditioning to become the symphony’s next music director, led a "Symphonie fantastique" whose parts often were more impressive than its sum. The performance was not lacking in passion or drama; but the conductor and orchestra seemed intent on rendering its details of orchestration and color as vividly as possible. Digging as deeply into the piece as they did, often moderating tempos to give finer points space and time to be heard, took some of the wildness and headlong momentum out of the piece, but also gave a sharper-than-usual focus to its weirder sound effects.

The long-distance call-and-response of oboist Gustav Highstein in the upper balcony and English horn player Shawn Welk onstage produced the appropriate spatial effect in the early going of "In the Country," and the bass strings sounded prominently, if not lushly, at that movement's lyrical peak. Knapp quite effectively brought out the Beethovenesque soulfulness of this music.

The brass choirs sounded big and brash without overwhelming strings in the "March to the Scaffold" and "Witches’ Sabbath." Berlioz was profligate with percussion in those last two movements of "Symphonie fantastique" – during "March to the Scaffold," he has four players manning two sets of kettle drums, plus bass and snare drummers – and these forces, at their loudest, did overwhelm the rest of the orchestra. The offstage bells in the "Witches’ Sabbath" tended to lag the beat, as well.

Mary Boodell’s beguiling flute solos highlighted the Debussy, which otherwise felt rather brisk. That impression may be due more to Knapp’s energetic conducting than to the tempo he adopted.

More about the acoustics of the renovated Carpenter Theatre (my perspective is from the first row of balcony seats): In this first go at a piano concerto, the instrument, placed near the lip of the stage extension – thus, well into the auditorium – was a strong but not domineering presence. (Denk, though, wasn't playing in alpha-virtuoso mode.) This was a cool evening and many patrons arrived in overcoats, which took some of the edge off the newly brightened sound of the hall, as the acousticians predicted. The space directly under the proscenium arch is indeed an acoustical sweet spot, occupied in these concerts by second violins and violas. Very loud volume does indeed sound congested, and loud percussion effectively blots out everything else.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Carpenter Theatre, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $17-$72. Details: (800) 927-2787 (Ticketmaster);

POSTSCRIPT: French music seems to compel writers to resort to sensory analogy. We’ve all read about the colorful, painterly qualities of Debussy and Ravel (impressionism and all that), and maybe descriptions of music from the preceding generation (Chausson, especially) as fragrant or perfumed. Aside from stray references to tartness (cue the oboe and E-flat clarinet), taste – as in flavor – isn’t normally on this analogy menu. I think it should be, and offer the Prokofiev Third Concerto, at least as Denk played it, as an exemplary dish of what I’ll call foodie French music.

Trying the visual analogy, I don’t hear Prokofiev selecting colors and and ordering them into a coherent composition. (A tidier and more angular version of Jackson Pollack, maybe.) I sense no aroma to speak of in this music. But I sure can taste it. I hear the sound equivalents of the classic five flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent – clearly differentiated ingredients in proper proportions, and courses that let each flavor stand out at some point in the meal.

A lot of French music can be tasted as it’s heard. The later Ravel, such as the Piano Concerto in G major, strikes me as having foodie qualities. I could say the same of many pieces from Les Six, of the generation following Ravel’s, and of a variety of non-French composers who spent time in early 20th-century Paris, from Prokofiev and Bohuslav Martinů to Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. (The Americans, though, tend to give you tastes of dust, dew and thin air.) French baroque music, notably Rameau, can be quite flavorful. So can Berlioz, though not in “Symphonie fantastique” unless you have a taste for raw meat.