Sunday, April 15, 2012

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
April 15, Richmond CenterStage

Brendon Elliott, a 17-year-old violinist from Newport News, is the first Richmond Symphony Concerto Competition winner in memory to be invited to perform with the orchestra in its mainstage Masterworks series.
Elliott fully lived up to that distinction in the second of two performances of
Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor given over the weekend.

This is one of the great virtuoso violin concertos of the late 19th century; but unlike some from that time, the Saint-Saëns requires more than advanced, flashy technique. Much of this music, especially the main theme of the central andantino, needs to be sung as much as played, by an instrumental voice as lyrical and rich as that of a great operatic voice. And the lyricism of the violin part extends well below coloratura range – even the double-stopped “chest” voice is full of melody.

In Elliott’s hands, the fiddle sang and breathed naturally, unconstrained but never excessive. His grasp of the musical line and expressive flow was unerring – even his occasional slide into a note sounded like the right thing to do at the time. Conductor Steven Smith and the orchestra provided robust and songful support throughout the piece.

The orchestral showpiece in this program was Charles Ives’ “Three Places in New England,” which Smith rightly rates as Ives at his best. The opening and closing tone poems, “The Saint-Gaudens in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and His Colored Regiment)” and “From the Housatonic at Stockbridge,” are complex, both atmospherically and expressively; the central “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut,” provides a vivid contrast in its evocation of a raucous, brassy Fourth of July celebration, but in its different way is just as challenging in its complexity.

Smith obtained subtly impressionistic, mistily colorful playing from the symphony’s strings in “The Saint-Gaudens,” and almost palpably liquid sounds – enhanced by the “current” of Russell Wilson’s celesta – in “Housatonic.” The orchestra sounded suitably exuberant, but never quite over the top, in “Putnam’s Camp.”

The program closed with an account of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor that was sensibly paced, richly sonorous in low strings and winds, but uneven in sustaining tension. The andante, oddly, sounded more concentrated and expressively taut than the opening allegro; the great passacaglia of the finale sounded heartfelt but not like an epically tragic culmination.

The performance was technically assured – none of the common loose threads of execution unraveled – and the solo voices, notably that of flutist Mary Boodell, were in fine form. But there’s more depth to this piece than was plumbed in this reading.