Sunday, February 5, 2012

Review: Richmond Symphony

Danail Rachev conducting
with Katherine Chi, piano
Feb. 4, Richmond CenterStage

In Harold Schonberg’s “The Great Conductors,” we learn that Igor Stravinsky once belittled Eugene Ormandy by calling him the ideal conductor of Johann Strauss. The cut didn't draw blood. A conductor who can draw from an orchestra the fluid yet precise rhythm, the breathing phrases, the brilliance with no loss of warmth, needed in a Strauss waltz, is a maestro indeed, one who probably can get anything else he wants out of a symphony orchestra.

It’s with that in mind that I salute Danail Rachev as an ideal conductor of Strauss waltzes. (Dvořák, too, I’ll bet.) The man makes an orchestra dance, and that’s a rare gift.

In the first of two weekend dates with the Richmond Symphony, Rachev, the Bulgarian-born music director of Oregon’s Eugene Symphony, set the rhythmic tone for this program in “Anitra’s Dance” from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” music. The tempo was precise, but with a hint of the langorous, seeming to roll or sway when played by massed strings.

Good for Grieg, of course; and, it turned out, good for Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, too. Both of these grander opuses are grounded in folk-dance rhythms, although that often goes unnoticed amid pianistic and orchestral brilliance and busyness. Rachev’s rhythmic sensibility ensured that it was noticeable in these performances.

The Canadian pianist Katherine Chi played the solo of the Rachmaninoff rhapsody with the bright tone, energy, precision and clarity that one expects to hear in Mozart or Ravel. That sound might not do justice to one of Rachmaninoff’s big concertos, but it suits the lighter-textured rhapsody very nicely. Chi didn’t hold back in the score’s more thunderous episodes, but her exchanges with and accompaniment of the symphony’s winds in the more colorful variations made a more lasting impression.

This was one of the first performances since the acoustical refit of the Carpenter Theatre in which the piano and orchestra sounded in proper balance.

With the exception of the Violin Concerto, long-form Sibelius often strikes me as anxiety-dream music – a laborious, frustrating exercise in trying to reach for something that you never quite get hold of. After a great deal of fevered brooding, expressed in jittery string figures, and episodic forays into lyrical and dance themes, the Fifth Symphony finally grasps its desired object, a chorale tune not too far evolved from a chant, made monumental by Sibelius’ orchestration and pacing.

On the way to that climax, Rachev obtained characterful and colorful playing from the orchestra. Martin Gordon’s bassoon solo in the first movement had both lyricism and gravitas. The strings’ pizzicato in the central movement, and their urgently whispering tone in the buildup to the finale, were finely drawn.
But, while intense and focused, this performance didn’t realize the full measure of tension in the piece.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Feb. 5 in the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $9-$36.50. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);