Saturday, November 6, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Nov. 5, The Steward School, Richmond

Steven Smith, the Richmond Symphony’s new music director, leads his first pair of Metro Collection chamber-orchestra concerts this weekend, obtaining rhythmically alert, tonally refined performances of works by Brahms, Copland, Haydn and Michael Torke that draw inspiration from, or at least make reference to, popular and vernacular musics.

In the Nov. 5 performance, rich string and well-integrated wind sound and nuanced gradations of waltz tempo marked a performance of the orchestration of Brahms’ "Liebeslieder Waltzes," followed by a crisply pointed reading of Copland’s "Music for the Theater," a 1924-vintage pre-echo of the composer’s later "Americana" works, only with jolts of hot-jazz syncopations and voicings that Copland largely cast aside in his maturity. (Leonard Bernstein picked up where Copland left off.)

The second half of the program sets Torke’s "Lucent Variations" (1998) alongside Haydn’s Symphony No. 82 in C major ("The Bear"), first of the six symphonies written for performances in Paris in the mid-1780s. A canny pairing: Torke’s "post-minimalist" style sets musical figures and rhythms from modern American pop in constructs that come straight out of the classical period; Haydn, who invented some of the classical style and perfected the rest, also drew liberally on popular and folk songs and dances of his time in works such as this symphony.

Torke describes "Lucent Variations" as an orchestral play on light. This performance emphasized its shifting tone colors, somewhat at the expense of rhythmic articulation. More of the crispness heard in the Copland would have greatly enhanced the Torke.

The Haydn was well-paced, not too fast, not too slow, tending slightly more to elegance than earthiness except in the finale, which earned the piece its nickname with its seeming evocation of a bear dancing to the drone of a bagpipe or hurdy-gurdy. Smith’s treatment struck me as a bit too metrical, needing more of the "skating" effect that Haydn produces rhythmically and dynamically.

If I were devising a program to introduce a newcomer to the symphony orchestra, I would be hard-pressed to come up with a better assortment of pieces than these four works. They cover all the stylistic bases from classical to post-modern, do so in reasonably bite-sized chunks (Torke’s 12-minute piece is the longest stretch of uninterrupted music); they’re all accessibly tonal, rhythmically active and largely upbeat.

If you were thinking of taking the kids to a non-kiddie symphony concert, this would be an excellent choice.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Nov. 7 at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St., in Ashland. Tickets: $20. Details: (800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster);