Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review: Richmond Symphony

Arthur Fagen conducting
Nov. 8, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

Arthur Fagen, last of nine music-director candidates to audition with the Richmond Symphony over the past 14 months, pulled off at least a semi-miracle in the second of two Metro Collection chamber-orchestra concerts. He obtained fine sonorities, mostly proper balances, even a bloom to string sound, in Randolph-Macon College’s Blackwell Auditorium, which has the driest acoustic of any venue in which this orchestra plays.

Fagen also demonstrated mastery of Austro-German classical and romantic style, not surprising from a conductor who has spent much of the past decade working in Central Europe.

His handling of Wagner’s "Siegfried Idyll," with long-breathed phrasing and modest applications of portamento, was high-romantic without lapsing into mannerism. His brisk pacing and sharp accenting of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor accommodated the more assertive treatment that the "historically informed" movement has brought to music of the classical period – but, again, without quirky interpretive distractions, and without trying to make modern instruments sound antique.

Ralph Skiano, the symphony’s principal clarinetist, was animated and soulful in Weber’s Concerto No. 1 in F minor. While digging into the passion of the concerto’s opening movement and treating its finale with apt playfulness, Skiano was at his best in a songful and tonally refined reading of the central adagio. The conductor, meanwhile, emphasized the turbulence and moodiness of Weber’s orchestration, making clear this music’s kinship with minor-key works of Hummel, Schubert, Chopin and other contemporaneous early romantics.

The meticulous ensemble playing and well-phrased, expressive solo contributions that Fagen obtained were especially notable, since the orchestra was performing without its concertmaster, Karen Johnson, and several of its principal wind players. One never got the impression that the B-team was on the job.

The Mozart, in fact, was as stylish and focused as any performance of this composer's music that I can recall from this orchestra.