Saturday, October 23, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Joanne Kong, prepared piano & harpsichord
Oct. 22, University of Richmond

Composer Michael Colgrass likes to tailor his music to the sound and personality of an individual musician. In Joanne Kong he found an unusually versatile subject, equally adept at piano and harpsichord. The work that Colgrass wrote for her, a

quasi-concerto called "Side by Side," is believed to be the first for a single soloist playing both keyboards, at times simultaneously.

Kong's performance of "Side by Side" with the Richmond Symphony was the last of three that she has given with the groups that commissioned the piece. (She previously played it with the Esprit Orchestra of Toronto and Boston Modern Orchestra Project, both in 2007.) She may be the work’s sole exponent for a while, simply because there aren’t many professional pianist-harpsichordists around – and probably fewer who are inclined toward contemporary music. Once more musicians cross the keyboard and chronology divides, though, they are likely to dote on this piece.

A compact work, about the length of a Bach or Haydn concerto, "Side by Side" explores two themes, one lyrical, the other reminiscent of baroque music in its skittish ornamentation, as if through a prism, or perhaps a conversation of exclamations and interrupted phrases.

The piano is prepared, à la John Cage, with mutes and objects such as screws on its strings, to produce what the composer calls a "barroom piano" sound, and to bring its sound presence and texture closer to those of a French-style two-manual harpsichord. Amplification is also employed to bring their sounds into parity.

The expected roles of the instruments are reversed: The piano sounds more percussive, the harpsichord more tuneful (if not lyrical). The keyboards’ duets are echoed by pairs of instruments – flute and viola, oboe and cello, trombone and double-bass, violin and the combined tones of harp and celesta – throughout the orchestration.

"Side by Side" is unusual not just in its double-barreled soloist, but also in its combination of busy playfulness and luminous sound; the glow, emanating largely from a big percussion section, warms up music that otherwise might strike many listeners as spiky or chilly.

Kong, conductor Steven Smith and the orchestra delivered an alert, crisply detailed and generally cheerful account of a piece that deserves, and will prove rewarding in, repeated hearings.

Heather Stebbins’ "Traces," originally written in 2008 while the composer was a student at UR, reworked here to conform to the orchestration of the Colgrass, has a similarly prismatic or fragmentary quality in its sound and organization.

Stebbins describes the piece as "a musical response to the notion of an event or object leaving behind remnants of existence." Those remnants are more like sharp-edged, solid objects than hazy or idealized memories, and they form a rather dense mass in the work’s several big climaxes.

To precede the new music by Colgrass and Stebbins, Smith chose the "Danses concertantes" of Igor Stravinsky, a late (1942) example of Stravinsky’s neoclassical style that is propelled by drolly off-kilter rhythms and wry, animated wind solos and ensembles. The orchestra’s wind players sparkled and/or frolicked through this witty piece.

This concert was one of the increasingly rare occasions when a showcase performance by a prominent local musician brings out colleagues in force. A wide cross-section of Richmond's keyboard artists and composers attended – a testimony to the high regard in which Kong is held. Further testimony: the long list of local patrons supporting the Richmond commission.