Sunday, January 15, 2012

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Jan. 14, Richmond CenterStage

One of the hardest things a symphony orchestra can do is play very quietly while maintaining balance, tonal quality, expression and projection. In that sense, the Richmond Symphony faces one of its biggest challenges of the season in accompanying classical guitarist Jason Vieaux in Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.”

This most familiar of guitar concertos requires not just an accomplished guitarist, which Vieaux certainly is, but also extraordinary sensitivity on the part of the conductor and orchestra, lest they overwhelm the soloist. The challenge is compounded when orchestral forces are substantial enough to project into a space as large as Richmond CenterStage’s Carpenter Theatre. Even when guitar sound is amplified, as it is in this weekend’s performances, maintaining balance between soloist and orchestra is very tricky indeed.

In the first of a pair of concerts, conducting an ensemble with a nearly full-sized complement of 36 strings, Steven Smith obtained rich and colorful sound from the orchestra, but without overbalancing Vieaux. The guitarist produced comparably robust tone and consistently fine expressive touches, notably in his extended duet with English horn player Shawn Welk in the concerto’s sublime slow movement. Amplification of the guitar sounded quite natural. Altogether, it was a jewel of a performance.

The Rodrigo is the centerpiece of an unusual program for the Masterworks series, which commonly is devoted to large-scale symphonic works. Of the four works on this bill, only one, Astor Piazzolla’s “Tangazo,” is scored for a big orchestra. The balance of the program, the Rodrigo concerto, William Bolcom’s “Commedia for (almost) 18th-Century Orchestra” and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K. 543, are works ordinarily played by a chamber orchestra, as they have been played previously by the symphony, usually in small halls.

Bolcom’s “Commedia,” a sometimes startlingly comic send-up of classical-period style and orchestration (also, less obviously, an homage to Charles Ives and several other modernist musical icons), is raucous enough to fill a room the size of this hall, especially when the piece’s concertante string trio is placed in the balcony, as it is for these performances.

The Mozart symphony is made room-filling with a beefier reading than this composer’s orchestral music usually gets these days. Smith’s interpretation is not quite a throwback to pre-historically informed “big-band” Mozart, but it is more broadly paced and richer in string tone, especially bass strings, than usual. This symphony is a good choice for this kind of treatment, because its orchestration features no oboes and only one flute; its wind choir has a warm, mellow quality that goes well with full-bodied string sound.

Piazzolla, the modern master of the Argentine tango, wrote a number of orchestral concert pieces as well as smaller-scaled music made for nightclubs and dance halls. “Tangazo,” peppered with colorful and playful touches and atmospheric effects, sounds like music in search of a movie, and is given an appropriately big-screen, Technicolor reading from Smith and the orchestra.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Jan. 15 at Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $18-$73. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);