Friday, April 15, 2011

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
April 14, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The Cochrane Atrium of the new McGlothlin Wing at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a bright, monumental space that serves as the “main street” of the expanded facility. More prosaically, it is the building’s lobby, with constant coming and going and attendant chatter and ambient noises. It is not a space suited to a performance by a chamber orchestra. That was (semi-)audible just a few minutes into a concert staged to celebrate “Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso,” running through May 15.

The program was right: works by Stravinsky, Satie, Ravel and Milhaud, all figures Picasso knew (and sometimes collaborated with in theatrical productions) in early 20th-century Paris, plus an arrangement of Vernon Duke’s “April in Paris” prepared by conductor Steven Smith. The orchestra’s placement, on a sun-dappled second-story landing, clustered around Barry Flanagan’s “Large Leaping Hare” (popularly known as the golden bunny) and a backdrop of spring greenery outside the windows, was a vision waiting to be documented on canvas.

But the music sounded distant and muted; only high-register sounds carried to listeners seated and standing 20 feet below. It would have sounded anemic under optimal conditions.

The symphony and museum, Richmond’s two largest arts institutions, hope to collaborate regularly. To collaborate successfully, they need a space in which music can be heard clearly and with minimal extra-musical noise.

The museum’s Marble Hall has proved to be an excellent space for all kinds of music, including orchestral. The Cheek Theater is used for music, among other things, but its acoustics are too dry for orchestra. Outdoors, several spots in and around the Robins Sculpture Garden look promising; the terrace and sloping lawn just west of the main entrance might do nicely as an amphitheater.

The atrium? No. Unless you like playing in traffic.