Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Sept. 25, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

Think of all the literary, historical, psychological, metaphysical and other non-musical modifers, metaphors and analogies ever used to describe Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Hardly any of them would be useful in describing the Ninth with which Steven Smith launches his first season as music director of the Richmond Symphony.

That’s because most of the non-musical language is used to characterize the subjective, romantic qualities of this work. Smith’s reading of the Ninth, in the first of two weekend performances, was objective in phrasing and voicing, classical in tone and spirit. Tempos were very fast, at times verging on breathless (the soloists in the “Ode to Joy” might strike the "verging on" part), and accents were sudden or slashing (or at least were meant to be).

Clearing away the romantic cobwebs in Beethoven – not wallowing in expressiveness, not letting energetic passages lumber along, not making exclamations and surprises land with a thud – is laudable, and is increasingly standard practice among conductors. Brisk, unindulgent Beethoven can give listeners new or renewed insights, even make them feel as if they are hearing this music for the first time.

A well-wrought classical Ninth, however, isn’t paced so quickly that it blurs or buries the orchestration’s internal figures and makes singers bark instead of sing. Its dynamic range isn’t compressed into the space between never really quiet and rarely very loud. Its silences resonate with wonder or tingle with anticipation, rather than giving you just enough time to think about saying, "Whew."

The orchestra performed alertly, with good sectional balance (hefty low strings, sonorous and punchy but not intrusive brass) and richer sonority than one might have expected at Smith’s tempos. The Richmond Symphony Chorus sang with refinement and fervor, although it sounded distant even when singing full-tilt, a chronic problem when the choristers are placed at the very back of the Carpenter Theatre stage.

The Beethoven Ninth is hell on solo voices – one or another commonly leaps out of ensembles, and some passages require the breath control of a pearl diver. Soprano Mary Dunleavy, mezzo-soprano Christin-Marie Hill, tenor Tracey Welborn and bass Kevin Deas were about average in coping with these issues, above average taking the speedy tempos into account. Dunleavy was the only one to produce memorably beautiful tone.

Time was, the Ninth was performed alone. Nowadays, it often has company on a program. Here, it is preceded by two short pieces by Mason Bates, plus the "Serenade to Music" by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Bates’ "Sonic Panoply," a fanfare commissioned for the new music director, is the first of two works that the Richmond-bred composer is introducing here this fall (the other is a piece for organ to be performed on Oct. 17 in the 200th anniversary service of Centenary United Methodist Church). Although billed as a fanfare, "Sonic Panoply" is more a miniature tone poem. Its colors are almost cinematic; it swings with elaborate syncopation; its stuttering wind and percussion figures give a nervy energy to the piece.

His "Ode" (2001), composed as a prelude or "prequel" to the Beethoven Ninth and peppered with fragmentary quotes from the Ninth, is a mosaic of orchestral sound, with startling accents, colliding motifs and sharply contrasted instrumental voices that strike the ear as a prism strikes the eye.

Smith and the orchestra dove into both pieces, to gratifying, at times dazzling, effect.

"Serenade to Music," performed here as part of the observance of the Symphony Chorus’ 40th anniversary (its founder, James Erb, still sings among the tenors), is high-autumnal Vaughan Williams – spacious, pastoral, lyrical, gazing with quiet wonder toward far horizons. Karen Johnson’s solo violin and the chorus’ sensitive reading of the text (from Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice") paced a mellow, long-breathed performance.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Carpenter Theatre. Tickets: $16-$72. Details: (800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster);