Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Nov. 13, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

This month’s Richmond Symphony Masterworks concerts feature the last in a series of introductory performances of "Jefferson, In His Own Words" by Judith Shatin, a University of Virginia professor whose office overlooks the lawn and Rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson. This 20-minute work is for orchestra with narrator, suggesting several similarities with Aaron Copland’s

"A Lincoln Portrait.”

In fact, it’s a very different kind of piece. The Jefferson texts selected by Shatin are not the great man’s greatest words, but passages from his letters and diaries, some intimate, some mundane (at least on the surface). More importantly, Shatin, unlike Copland, thoroughly integrates words and music.

In the work’s performances to date, the narrator has been a public speaker: the television journalist Bill Kurtis in the Illinois Symphony’s premiere last March, former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles in subsequent performances by the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra and again in these Richmond Symphony concerts. (They and the Virginia Symphony of Hampton Roads commissioned the work; it is dedicated to Gerald Morgan, a longtime patron of Richmond’s musicians.)

Baliles speaks with the Virginia cadence, in an accent we might imagine to be not unlike Jefferson’s. This score’s treatment of its texts, however, sounds to need a narrator with expertise in speech-song (Sprechstimme, in the parlance), able to use rhythm and inflection to connect fragmented phrases to the music around them. With a "straight" reader, words and music seem to interrupt rather than amplify each other.

Shatin’s large-scale, impressionistically colorful orchestration evokes misty Blue Ridge vistas in its quieter and more contemplative moments, but more often enlarges, with some turbulence, on the text’s suggestions of Jefferson’s inner emotional life. The portrait that Shatin paints is far from the usual picture of an enigmatic and cerebral man.

This performance by conductor Steven Smith and the Richmond Symphony played up the color and drama of Shatin’s score. Baliles’ straightforward reading inevitably sounded monochromatic in contrast.

In this program, the Shatin follows Copand’s "Fanfare for the Common Man," a sonorous and punchy exercise for the symphony’s brass and percussion musicians, and in turn is followed by two rarely heard romantic scores, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 2 in D minor and Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D major.

Neal Cary, the symphony’s principal cellist, played the Saint-Saëns with robust tone and high-romantic phrasing, to especially lyrical and loving effect in the andante sostenuto section concluding the concerto’s first movement. Cary, Smith and the orchestra nicely balanced the concerto’s romantic spirit and its almost Beethovenian classicism, rarely so neatly distilled.

Dvořák’s Sixth is the least played of his mature symphonies, probably because its treatment of classical structure tends toward the discursive. In its classicism and its warm string and brass tones, this is the most Brahmsian of the Dvořák symphonies; but in its tunes and rhythms, it is unmistakably Dvořák and idiomatically Czech. (Its scherzo may be the greatest of the composer’s Slavonic dances.)

Smith crafted a tonally luxuriant interpretation, with a gratifying balance of tautness and fluidity in its rhythms, deep lyricism in its adagio movement, energy and portent in its first movement and finale, and plenty of breathing room for solos, notably those of oboist Gustav Highstein, piccolo player Ann Choomack and French horn player Robert Johnson.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Carpenter Theatre. Tickets: $17-$72. Details: (800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster);