Monday, January 30, 2012

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Jan. 29, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

The Richmond Symphony has a history with the music of John Adams. George Manahan, the orchestra’s third music director (1987-99), secured his appointment, in part, with a surprisingly well-received reading of Adams’ “Shaker Loops.” The symphony made its debut at Washington’s Kennedy Center in a performance of Adams’ “Harmonium” in 1988. And, in 1995, it was one of the first regional orchestras to take on the composer’s fiendishly challenging Chamber Symphony.

With its current music director, Steven Smith, the ensemble revisited the Adams symphony in a Metro Collection concert over the weekend. Few veterans of the 1995 performance remain on the orchestra’s roster, but they surely remember that first go; they were no doubt gratified to be part of a much more accomplished rendition this time around.

Adams’ Chamber Symphony, introduced in 1992, was inspired by the 1906 work of the same name by Arnold Schoenberg and by the composers who scored the now-classic cartoons of the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s, notably Carl Stalling, whose frenetic, wildly inventive scores graced the Looney Tunes animations.

The Schoenberg influence can be heard in Adams’ musical textures; the energy level and often wacky instrumental voicings harken back to Stalling. The jazzy rhythmic character of this piece, and others by Adams (among them, “The Chairman Dances,” the symphonic foxtrot the symphony will play in a forthcoming Masterworks program), are a kind of family inheritance – the composer’s father was a clarinetist who played in jazz and swing bands.

Smith led an energetic performance that did full justice to the intricate combinations and exchanges of instrumental voices, cross-rhythms and perilous balances of the Adams score. Concertmaster Diana Cohen paced a quartet of the orchestra’s principal string players in sizzling fiddle figurations. Wind and brass players chirped and crooned, often at breakneck tempos and in odd time signatures. Russell Wilson, playing electronic keyboard, and the symphony’s percussionists made true grooves of Adams’ jazz rhythms.

Smith and the orchestra pulled off another balancing act in Samuel Barber’s “Capricorn” Concerto (1944), in which a string orchestra supports solos and ensemble playing by flute, oboe and trumpet. Rolla Durham reined in his trumpet to complement the projection and tonal qualities of Mary Boodell’s flute and Shawn Welk’s oboe, while the conductor obtained robust yet bright sonorities from the strings. The sunny character of the piece came through, and with more sonic brilliance than might have been expected in the dry acoustic of Randolph-Macon’s Blackwell Auditorium.

The 20th century gave way to the 18th in the program’s second half, highlighted by a lithe and bracing reading of Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D major, the “Haffner,” one of the works with which the composer introduced himself to Vienna. Smith adopted faster tempos, more crisp articulation and less plush string tone than he had in a recent performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39. The symphony’s strings were in excellent form, pacing an energized and stylish “Haffner.”

The program also featured a rare sampling of music by Jean-Phillippe Rameau, the greatest French composer of the high baroque, in a suite of three dances from the operas “Platée” and “Les fêtes d’Hébé” arranged by the 19th-century conductor Felix Mottl. Mottl was almost faithful to Rameau’s style – he couldn’t resist adding some romanticized harmonizations to low string parts; and Smith and the orchestra brought more baroque style and sensibility than the arranger could have conceived.