Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Jan. 30, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

The piccolo is the soprano of the flute family, and among the highest-pitched of orchestral instruments (a few percussion instruments reach into higher registers). Although it's not a huge presence in most orchestrations, the piccolo sounds prominently in even the most dense scoring. That may be one reason so few composers have written for solo piccolo with orchestra. Among those few, Antonio Vivaldi produced the best-known example in his compact Concerto in C major for piccolo, strings and continuo.

Ann Choomack, the Richmond Symphony's third flutist and piccolo player, was featured in the Vivaldi in the orchestra's Metro Collection program over the weekend. In its fast outer movements, the piece is basically an exercise in technique and timing for the soloist; its central slow movement offers the only opportunities for really expressive playing. Choomack exploited those opportunities in a moodily lyrical performance, and handled the speedier technical demands with precision and alertness.

Vivaldi's mastery of nature evocation and impersonation, so vividly displayed in his "Four Seasons," is curiously absent in the Piccolo Concerto – there's nothing especially birdsy or beesy in either the solo writing or orchestral accompaniment. Perhaps to compensate, conductor Steven Smith followed the Vivaldi with Ottorino Respighi's "Gli uccelli" ("The Birds"), a suite evoking the sounds of the dove, hen, nightingale and cuckoo.

"The Birds" is one of Respighi's works in "ancient" style, a modern take on the baroque orchestral suite. Its modernity is most audible in the colorful, highly accented "Hen," which Smith and the orchestra played up to fine effect. Other movements, with less evocative or more predictable effects, received more routine readings. That was generally true, too, of their performance of a suite of four fantasias by Henry Purcell, originally for a consort of viols, heard here in a modern string orchestration by Walter Goehr.

The acoustics of Randolph-Macon College's Blackwell Auditorium tend to produce rather opaque bass sound; that was especially pronounced in the Purcell and in Ravel's "Pavane pour une infante d̩funte" (literally, "Pavane for a Dead Princess" Рmore accurately, "Pavane for a princess in the now-dead past"). The Ravel received a graceful and suitably moody performance, but its tone colors were mostly shades of brown.

The most challenging work on the program, for musicians and listeners alike, was "Variaciones concertantes" (1953) by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. This piece occupies a special place in the Richmond Symphony's history: It was the highlight of the most widely circulated of the orchestra's recordings, a 1989 disc with then-music director George Manahan on the Elan label, and several of the principals in that session still play with the symphony. Their familiarity with the score, and conductor Smith's attention to detail, were evident in this colorful, glowing performance.

The marketing premise of the Richmond Symphony's Metro Collection is to draw in new patrons with bargain-priced chamber-orchestra concerts close to home in the suburbs. Smith has tweaked that with programs giving listeners thematically linked samplers of varying eras and styles of orchestral music. The result is a showcase in miniature of all an orchestra can do – a rare case of less really being more.