Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Sept. 18, Richmond CenterStage

The Richmond Symphony opened its 2011-12 season – the second of Steven Smith as its music director, and the first whose programming he has overseen fully – by contrasting classical-romantic with modern-contemporary works, a practice that promises to be this conductor’s modus operandi.

The classical-romantic first half opened with a rather mellow account of Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3, paced by the offstage trumpet calls of Rolla Durham, who has done this duty often enough to expertly balance distance with presence. The Beethoven was followed by a more ardent and propulsive performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto, with Elena Urioste as the soloist.

Urioste, who first appeared with the orchestra last year as a late substitute in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, proved a sonically focused and interpretively passionate advocate for the Brahms. Her tone may not the biggest and fattest around, but she can, and did, summon plenty of intensity when it’s called for, which it quite often is in the big first movement of this piece. The sweet but not excessively sentimental lyricism that prevailed in her reading of the concerto’s adagio was, in its way, just as impressive.

The young violinist also injected a bit of novelty into the Brahms, choosing the first-movement cadenza by Leopold Auer over the more familiar one by Joseph Joachim. (Actually, it was a judicious combination: the main body of Auer’s cadenza segued with Joachim’s smoother handover to the orchestra.)

For the second half of the program, conductor Smith chose “Dreamwaltzes” by the contemporary American composer Steven Stucky and “The Miraculous Mandarin” Suite of Bela Bartók.

Stucky’s tone poem, dating from 1986, is a tribute-cum-extension of the symphonic waltz tradition of the Strausses (Johann and Richard) by way of modernists, notably the Ravel of “La Valse,” liberally garnished with the shimmering, rarified colorations that have become increasingly prevalent in orchestral music over the past century.

The waltz elements of the score are pretty straightforward, even traditional (including a more or less straight quotation of the farewell waltz from Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”), generally centered in the strings but with low brass often playing unexpectedly prominent roles. The dreaminess of the piece emanates mostly from woodwinds and a large but rarely in-your-face percussion section.

Smith and the symphony delivered a nicely balanced and well-detailed performance, making a persuasive case for Stucky’s attractive score.

The conductor and musicians were audibly pumped-up for “The Miraculous Mandarin” Suite, riding its surges of sound and negotiating its subtler and more technically challenging elements with engagement and assurance. Clarinetist Ralph Skiano’s several important solos, and the shorter solo measures for violin, played by the symphony’s new concertmaster, Diana Cohen, enhanced an altogether winning reading of the piece.

The conductor introduced the Bartók suite with a
semi-apology for its “cacophonous” elements, a concession to traditionalist sensitivities that shouldn’t be necessary for a work that’s nearly a century old (it dates from 1919), and one whose techniques and effects have been mimicked for decades in the soundtracks of science-fiction and action movies and TV shows. By now, even the most conservative listeners ought to be able to tolerate, even to enjoy, music of this kind without also watching some sweaty guy running for his life.