Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Dmitri Shteinberg, piano
Oct. 16, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto is music freighted with back stories. "Rach 3" was the musical and technical challenge that sent the psychologically fragile young pianist David Helfgott into a decades-long breakdown, a story recounted in the 1996 film "Shine." In the 1920s this was the piece that the young Russian émigré Vladimir Horowitz used to introduce himself to the West; Rachmaninoff, who wrote the concerto to showcase his own virtuosity, supposedly conceded that the new kid outplayed him.

What with those and other tales, the accumulated wisdom/folklore about this piece is that it's the ultimate highwire-without-a-net act for concert pianists, pushing performers to their limits of technique, stamina and nerve. Audiences are conditioned to expect performances of great nervous energy, with vivid displays of speed and brilliance, plus the frisson of risk.

Dmitri Shteinberg, the Russian-American pianist based at Virginia Commonwealth University, offered none of the extramusical melodramatics of Rach 3 in the first of two weekend performances with the Richmond Symphony. He played the piece for what it is: a pianistically busy, expressively rich slice of late-romantic music, the destination of the journey begun by Chopin.

The echoes of Chopin in this concerto are clearest in its central intermezzo; Shteinberg emphasized the wistful calm, intimacy and uncrowded sonority of this music, heightening its contrast with the sonic pyrotechnics of the surging opening movement and galloping finale. In these bigger, busier sections the pianist displayed a finely honed technique, but more gratifyingly conveyed a thorough understanding of romantic piano rhetoric and a gift for shaping musical phrases.

I've heard three piano concertos – Beethoven's "Emperor," Prokofiev's Third and now Rach 3 – since the acoustical refit of the Carpenter Theatre, and I'm about ready to conclude that a piano sounds underpowered alongside an orchestra when the instrument is positioned front and center of a stage extended into the house, the usual setup for symphony concerts. The imbalance is especially pronounced in more densely or loudly orchestrated romantic concertos such as the Rachmaninoff; I wouldn't be surprised to hear it again in the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, which Awadagin Pratt is scheduled to play with the orchestra in February. Pratt willing, the symphony might use those concerts to try experimenting with piano placement to achieve stronger projection and better balance with the orchestra.

Steven Smith, the symphony's new music director, conducting his second pair of Masterworks concerts, pairs the Rachmaninoff concerto with Stravinsky’s "Firebird" Suite. The works are contemporaneous – the concerto was introduced in 1909, "The Firebird" in 1910 – and, perhaps surprisingly, complementary; heard together, they remind the listener of how rich, varied and often startling new compositions were 100 years ago, in the Indian summer of romanticism and early spring of modernism. (We're living through a comparable transitional time, with comparable crosscurrents and surprises, in music right now.)

Smith led the orchestra in a briskly paced, generally brightly colored reading of the Stravinsky, obtaining plenty of heft from low strings, brass and percussion, finely threaded string playing and well-detailed, generally well-balanced wind choirs.

The program opened with a brass ensemble lining the front of the stage for the fanfare from Paul Dukas’ ballet "La Péri," followed by Ravel’s orchestrations of a Sarabande and Danse from piano scores of Debussy. In all three pieces, Smith showed once again that he and the symphony’s musicians create especially good chemistry in French music.

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