Sunday, November 15, 2009

Review: Richmond Symphony

Arthur Fagen conducting
Nov. 14, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

None of the nine candidates for music director of the Richmond Symphony has faced tougher challenges in sonic choreography and direction of heavy traffic than Arthur Fagen takes on in conducting "Nanking! Nanking! A Threnody for Orchestra and Pipa" (2000) by the Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng.

The work, part-soundscape, part-contemplation, of the 1937 "rape of Nanking" – the sacking of the city, then China’s capital, and the slaughter of some 300,000 civilians by Japanese invaders – is scored for a very large orchestra, with augmented brass sections and an enormous battery of percussion employed in battle scenes of extraordinary violence and near-deafening volume.

Making music, rather than cataclysmic noise, of these sections requires tight control over orchestral forces, as well as a keen ear for instrumental balances and for the quantity and quality of sound that a concert hall can accommodate. A conductor also must effectively contrast the battle scenes with much quieter sections in which the leading voice is a pipa, or Chinese lute, played in these concerts by Yang Wei. Lutes generally are low-volume instruments, and the pipa is among the quietest and most subtle of lutes. (Even amplified, as it is in this piece, a solo pipa is rarely louder than a softly played harp.)

Fagen and the orchestra negotiated the battle scenes at an energy level suggesting abandon – deceptively so: lack of control is the last thing you want in performing music whose rhythms and voicings are so complex and crowded – yet not so relentlessly and not (quite) so deafeningly that the listener was left in a state of shock to absorb the lyrical, string-centered core of the work and the pipa’s bittersweet musings. The delicacy of the lute and its accompanists in the orchestra made as strong an impression as the brassy, percussive explosions in this performance.

Yang Wei’s virtuosity is tested maximally in "Nanking! Nanking!" but his ability to coax magical sounds from the pipa – and its way of imposing a deep quiet on an audience – was better showcased in a couple of solo encores. The first was another battle piece, the traditional Chinese tune (really, a fantasia) "Ashes of the Battlefield." The second was not what you would expect to hear played on a pipa. (In case he plays it again in the second concert, I won’t spoil the surprise.*)

Fagen framed the Bright Sheng work with 19th-century evergreens, Beethoven’s "Egmont" Overture and Franck’s Symphony in D minor. In both, as in Wagner’s "Siegfried Idyll" last weekend, the conductor obtained a big, warm romantic sonority without muddying colors or obscuring musical details.

The "Egmont" sounded warm but not quite focused, flabby in its accents. Fagen and the orchestra made the Franck an unusually (at least for me) engaging experience, sustaining momentum in tempos that threaten to plod and taking care to reveal Franck’s new wrinkles in repetitions and reappearances of the motifs around which this symphony is built. He also drew the fullest, warmest bass-string sound that the orchestra has produced since moving back into the Carpenter Theatre.

Weak bass has been the biggest flaw in orchestral sound in this acoustically renovated hall, and it was gratifying to hear that the problem is not insoluble. Winds and brasses are seated on risers for these concerts; that seems to produce a better blend.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Carpenter Theatre, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $17-$72. Details: (800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster);

* Now it can be told: His second encore was "Home on the Range."