Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Evelyn Glennie, percussion
April 2, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

It’s quite rare to hear a symphony audience listen in rapt silence and with evidently deep concentration to a lengthy work of contemporary music, let alone one in which most of the aural foreground is occupied by percussion instruments. In this case, however, the percussionist was a star and the performance was as much visual as musical.

Evelyn Glennie, the acclaimed Scottish percussionist, is the most prominent deaf musician at work today. Having lost her hearing in childhood, Glennie feels sound waves through her hands and body; over time, she has developed acute tactile sensitivity to the differing vibrations of air that produce different pitches. (Those who can hear feel musical sound in the same way, but generally aren’t aware of it unless the sound is loud and pitched low – a rumbling vehicle close by, for instance.)

In this date with the Richmond Symphony, Glennie performed one of the many pieces written for her, and one of the largest in scale: Michael Daugherty’s “UFO” (1999), a five-movement, 42-minute concerto in which the percussionist and orchestra produce a host of otherworldly sounds, often with wide spatial effects.

Daugherty’s score draws upon many of the imagined sounds of aliens and their machinery popularized through generations of science-fiction film and TV soundtracks, which in turn incorporated many of the “spacey” sonic innovations of modern composers – notably, Bartók and Messiaen. The big tune of “UFO,” a broad, wistfully mellow (or, per the composer, “mysterious”) melody running through the central section “Flying,” harkens back to the more lyrical themes in Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” which shared this program with the Daugherty.

Glennie performed on four arrays of percussion instruments, some familiar (drums, cymbals, vibraphone, xylophone), some exotic (waterphone, mark tree, “unidentified metal” objects), frequently played unconventionally (bowed or stroked rather than struck) and sometimes accompanied by vocalizations. The soloist and her instruments were amplified, but volume levels were moderate enough not to overbalance the orchestra or overwhelm listeners.

Whether by design or natural gracefulness, Glennie’s movements amounted to choreography; her fluid physicality was worldly counterpoint to Daugherty’s otherworldly music.

Conductor Steven Smith and the symphony gave Glennie attentive and sonorous support. In the fourth section of “UFO,” titled “???” several of the orchestra’s percussionists “wandered” through the audience, effectively using the whole hall as a sound stage.

Following “UFO,” Holst’s “Planets” was a comfortable return to earth, both figuratively in its largely traditional tonality (the composer was a fringe member of the English pastoral school of the early 20th century) and literally in that Holst’s planetary evocations are not astronomical but astrological, about stellar influence on human feelings and behavior.

The seven-part suite is best-known for its opening movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War” (the template for all the battle music of sci-fi filmdom), and for “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” a miniature tone poem whose high-Edwardian central tune was borrowed for the patriotic anthem “I Vow to Thee, My Country” and the hymn “O God Beyond All Praising” (also known as “Thaxted”). Other sections of the suite, notably “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” and “Uranus, the Magician,” draw liberally on the tonal effects and orchestration techniques of the French impressionists and avant-gardists of Holst’s time – making “The Planets” a piece of digestible modernism, akin to Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

In this performance, Smith and a generously augmented orchestra – extra stands of string players, double the usual complements of winds and most brasses, two sets of timpani, two harps, celesta and organ – produced glorious sonorities in “Jupiter” and “Venus, the Bringer of Peace," high impact in “Mars” (although it was rhythmically a bit too angular for my taste) and fine detail in the more rarified likes of “Uranus” and “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age.” The wordless, offstage contribution of the Richmond Symphony Women’s Chorus at the conclusion of “Neptune, the Mystic” was unusually subtle, seemingly rising from and then returning to the void.

These days, “The Planets” is frequently staged with extramusical effects, such as light shows or video (almost always astronomical, i.e. misrepresentational). This performance, without visual additives, was a welcome opportunity to let Holst work his wonders on the ear and the imagination.

The program, the centerpiece of the symphony’s Regale fund-raising gala, also turned out to be a consolation prize for fans of the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams, whose loss to the Butler Bulldogs in the Final Four of the NCAA Basketball Tournament was given a pre-concert screening at the Carpenter Theatre. About half of the concert audience came early for the screening; its highly vocal reaction to the game, and to the orchestra’s wildly energetic rendition of the VCU fight song as a prelude to the announced concert program, contrasted vividly with its unusually quiet absorption of the music that followed.