Saturday, April 24, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Gil Shaham, violin
April 24, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

Steven Smith's debut as the fifth music director of the Richmond Symphony was a gala event, featuring the most stellar of this season's guest soloists, violinist Gil Shaham. In this fund-raiser for the orchestra – not as debt-ridden as many of its brethren, but still under recessionary financial stress – the symphony's musicians donated their time for rehearsals and the performance.

Smith launched his tenure by dealing head-on with the top artistic priority facing the conductor of this orchestra: Sorting out orchestral sonorities, timbres and balances in the often challenging acoustical environment of the renovated Carpenter Theatre. He began that task in a program of very colorful and sonically complex works of Ravel, Debussy and Manuel De Falla.

Their color and dynamism effectively cloaked the hard work in progress, and the program was generously garnished with ear candy: The orchestra playing Ravel's Bolero and an arrangement of Debussy's "Clair de lune," and accompanying Shaham in the "Fantasy on Bizet’s 'Carmen' " and "Zigeunerweisen" ("Gypsy Airs") by the late 19th-century Spanish violin virtuoso-composer Pablo de Sarasate and the "Meditation" from Massenet’s "Tha├»s."

Shaham dove into the Sarasate pieces with both fiery and cheerful virtuosity and rendered the Massenet with a kind of chaste soulfulness. His body language and perma-grin suggested he was having the time of his life; and his almost in-your-face proximity to Smith (a violinist-turned-conductor) was an unusually vivid demonstration of close collaboration and fiddlers’ kinship.

Smith, who had auditioned for his job with music of Stravinsky, Schubert, Berlioz, Beethoven and Shostakovich, concluded this formal debut concert with Ravel’s "La Valse," a work that not many conductors would dare to audition with – but that I’ve heard several select as an opening-night showpiece.

Perhaps the most striking musical representation of old Europe lurching violently into modernity, "La Valse" is scored for a large orchestra that produces a welter of unusual sound effects atop skidding rhythms. The piece is full of precarious balances and unexpected twists, big rhetoric spiked with sly asides. The conductor must direct heavy and intricate traffic, and as an interpreter must capture a spirit that’s equal parts neurosis and farce.

Smith directed traffic expertly and with close attention to voicing, balances and dynamics. His waltz time was on the broad side, which took some of the edge off of Ravel’s wilder expressive gestures and muted the undertone of frenzy until it was unleashed in the climax. The symphony’s strings were gratifyingly woozy, the winds nicely varied in tone color, the brass and percussion assertive but not domineering.

The conductor and orchestra achieved comparably fine results in Debussy’s too rarely heard "L’Isle joyeuse" and the Suite No. 2 from De Falla’s "The Three-Cornered Hat." They and "La Valse" were the most agreeably balanced accounts of brightly colored, high-volume music that the orchestra has performed since moving back into the Carpenter Theatre.